As a U.S. political columnist, the Washington Post‘s Anne Applebaum (“Britain’s Spot of Tea Party,” 4/27/10) might be excused for calling the Liberal Democratic Party “Britain’s historically insignificant third party”; historically speaking, it was actually one of Britain’s two major parties in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s Applebaum’s misunderstanding of the politics of her own country that’s harder to forgive.
Applebaum’s column asks, “What would the Tea Party movement look like if it were British”–and the answer is, like the Liberal Democrats, as embodied by candidate Nick Clegg. Presumably it’s not his support for immigration or his mixed ethnic background–two things the Tea Parties are not notably enthusiastic about–that makes her see a resemblance.
So apparently the similarity she’s talking about is in Clegg’s third-party message: “Instead of ideology, he offers an option: If you are sick of Labor, if you can’t bring yourself to vote Conservative, if you are bored of the two-party system itself–then vote for me.” Applebaum concludes her column by saying that the ordinary British voter, “like his Tea-Partying colleagues across the Atlantic, is perfectly happy to vote for the end of politics as we know it. The faster the better, please.”
But Tea Party activists are not particularly interested in third parties, nor are they equally disenchanted with each of the two major ones. According to a New York Times/CBS News survey (4/5-12/10), Tea Party supporters are 6 percentage points less likely than all respondents to support a new third party (40 percent vs. 46 percent). Sixty-six percent of Tea Partiers usually or always vote Republican; 6 percent usually or always vote Democratic. Applebaum seems, like many journalists, to believe that the Tea Party protesters are pretty much like Perot voters; as political scientist Ron Rapoport told the FiveThirtyEight blog (4/19/10), “The major difference is that Perot movement was a total rejection of both parties, while the tea party movement is a total rejection of only one party–the Democrats.”
Applebaum also claims that “Britain, like the United States, has ‘first past the post’ voting: a two-party system and, usually, a one-party government–albeit Britain’s has far fewer checks and balances than that of the United States.” Actually, since the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, divided government has been more the rule than the exception in the U.S.–with different parties controlling the White House and at least one house of Congress in 30 of the last 42 years.