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Tea party activists: Don't confuse them with independents

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Social conservatives set their sights on the Republican Party in 1964 when Barry Goldwater won the GOP nomination but was defeated by Great Society Democrat Lyndon Johnson. They captured the White House 16 years later with Ronald Reagan, compromised with George W. Bush and the neoconservatives in 2000 and 2004, but were swamped in 2008 by the rise of a new movement – the independents – when America elected its first black president.

Bursting onto the scene in 1992 with an outpouring for Ross Perot, the independent movement began as largely white, leaning center-right. While the movement was quintessentially anti-establishment, left-liberals wrote it off as hopelessly right-wing.

But a network of unorthodox independent leftists with a base in the black, Latino, gay, and progressive communities, reached out to forge a populist coalition with the Perotistas. Appealing to the need to bring all Americans together against a self-dealing, corrupt two-party arrangement, a new coalition took root inside the Perot movement, which led to the creation of the national Reform Party. 

At its founding meeting in Kansas City in 1997, the 40 black delegates in the room, led by the country’s foremost African-American independent – Lenora Fulani – represented the first time in US history that African-Americans were present at the founding of a major national political party. 

Though cast as either centrist or conservative, the Reform Party was neither. It had become a left-center-right coalition shaped around an agenda for populist political reform.

While issues of immigration, trade, and the debt continued to interest many independents, this independent coalition turned to the need to reform the American political process as its fundamental concern. Nonpartisan reform of elections and up-from-the-bottom democratic control became its operating principles locally and nationally, while the movement grappled with how to move beyond Mr. Perot.

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