A comparison of our Reform Party and the American Tea Party movement, and anything the Americans can learn from the Canadian experience with a successful fledgling grassroots movement.
Unfortunately, due to societal differences, the answer is “probably not a lot.”
First off, a quick dime’s worth of exposition for Americans unfamiliar with the history of Canadian politics: the Reform Party was a political party that spun off from the old Progressive Conservatives1 back in the late 80s, grew to dominate western Canada’s conservative political scene, and then rebranded itself as the Canadian Alliance party because they decided they needed a stupid name too before ultimately re-unifying with the remnants of the PCs to become the new Conservative Party of Canada, which the Reformers dominated far more greatly.
Now, with that exposition out of the way, the first distinguishing factor between the Reform Party and the tea partiers is that Reform had its genesis as an explicitly regionalistic party. Reform was created for no other reason than to address western Canadians’ conservative political concerns. Now, granted, you can argue that the tea partiers are disproportionately located in one portion of the United States (e.g. the South, and to a lesser extent the Midwest), but their concerns aren’t really regional in basis.
The second distinguishing factor is that the Reform Party had its real arrival as a national force (okay, still primarily a regionally based national force, but even so, one able to compete electorally across the country) because the Progressive Conservatives from whom they split off were the party in power. The PCs had attempted an ambitious and unpopular Constitutional reform which failed, plus instituted the GST2 and led the country during a period of recession and were deeply, deeply unpopular. The new, invigorated base of the Reform Party was thus former PCs. Again, you can attempt to draw similarities by suggesting that the majority of tea partiers are somewhat disaffected Republicans, but there are less Republicans than Democrats in the USA and they’re not in power. This is why you see tea partiers more interested, in a lot of cases, in “taking back” the Republican party by supporting tea-party-friendly candidates over moderate Republicans: they’re still reacting against the party in power, but the party in power is the Democrats, to whom they’re ideologically opposed.
However, the tea partiers have the same problem that Reformers did back in the day, which is that the bulk of the political mainstream sees them as stupid hicks who are, at the very least, slightly racist. The Reform Party dealt with this by disavowing or dropping support for the occasional prominent member or candidate who fucked up and said something too obviously racist or homophobic in public, but generally didn’t bother reprimanding or commenting when one of their run-of-the-mill members did so. This is at least in part the reason why the Reform Party – and later the Canadian Alliance – never really broke through in Ontario or Quebec, which are more liberal provinces than the western half of Canada generally.3
And ultimately, it’s worth remembering that the Reform Party’s success at finally becoming mainstreamed into Canadian politics (rather than a permanent opposition party) only happened when they merged with the remnants of the old Progressive Conservatives, a rebranding which made them more accessible to the Canadian general public. However, that rebranding also caused them to become slightly more moderate, or at least to accept more moderately conservative politicians into their framework. I don’t think the tea partiers are really interested in doctrinal inclusivity – mostly because a lot of them don’t have any fucking clue about policy other than they like to shout a lot – so this route to success might pose problematic for them.4
Finally, note that this rebranding created a balancing act which is problematic because Stephen Harper is probably the only politician in the entire party that the old-school moderate Tories and the right-wing Reformers will accept as a leader, and Harper can’t be the leader forever: as he straddles the fault line of the conservative movement in Canada he gets stretched further and further, and more and more of the old Reformers grow alienated. Eventually, they’ll demand that one of their idiot MPs take command, and that’ll work about as well as Stockwell Day’s tenure as leader did.
- Yes, we all know it was a stupid name. Whatever. [↩]
- New sales taxes have always been a formula for unpopularity. [↩]
- People think British Columbia is some sort of massive hippie commune because of the existence of Vancouver, but outside of Vancouver there are people so conservative they’re still not sure about these newfangled telephones. [↩]
- And finally, although I don’t want to get into the details, a parliamentary system such as Canada’s is a lot friendlier to the genesis of new parties than the United States’ governmental system is. [↩]