THE BLOG
10/04/2010 03:05 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Tea Party: Elvis or One Hit Wonder?

With only a few weeks left until the mid-term elections it's safe to say that the Tea Party has positioned itself as the rock star de jeur of American politics. The question now is whether they will be like Elvis, who shaped American music for generations; or like the guys who wrote "Come On Eileen" and shaped wedding receptions and bar mitzvah dance parties for generations. By demanding political process change, the Tea Party could ensure a more spirited and representative democracy and in doing so shape our government for generations.

They should start with fusion voting, a practice that allows major party candidates to run on third party ballots. Fusion-voting mixes idealism with pragmatism -- allowing citizens who don't see their values represented by the major parties to select a third party without "throwing away" their vote on a spoiler candidate. In short, fusion-voting opens wide the doors of participatory democracy and fosters a more representative system. This common sense reform substantially narrows the gulf between politicians and the people they represent.

There was a time in American history when fusion-voting took place in almost every state. But as the two-party system grew stronger those in power sought to ban the practice -- and for good reason: fusion-voting meant a better organized and more vocal electorate. It allowed citizens to cast a meaningful vote on an unadulterated platform. By drawing in disenfranchised voters the practice fostered greater competition and demanded more accountability from politicians. Unfortunately for the people, in most states today the major parties maintain a monopoly on viable candidates, giving many voters little reason to go to the polls on election-day. Fusion voting is currently only practiced in eight states (it is technically legal under limited circumstance in a few others). Through a federal mandate, this third-party friendly practice could potentially be enacted in all 50 states.

In a thriving democracy social change requires procedural change. The bond between government and the people has been broken. No personality, however strong, can restore that promise. Tea Party candidates made an impressive showing Tuesday but even if they win in November their impact on our political system will likely be minimal.

Successful political movements in American history have in common the recognition that apt structural change is often the most effective way to advance constructive policy change. At the turn of the 20th century the American progressive movement championed essential issue-specific legislation including anti-child labor laws, but they also sought to reform a system of governance fundamentally unprepared to confront challenges resulting from a new social landscape. They fought to ensure the direct election of senators fostering structural changes that allowed the next generation of social activists to hold politicians accountable to the people.

Progressive-era reformers and the Tea Party have much in common -- both disenchanted by the marginalization of average American voices in the political arena, and tired of a government run by special interests. Democracy cannot survive as a static system -- and our democracy is clearly broken. To advance better solutions we must re-imagine our systems and institutions. The Tea Party's influence puts them in a unique position to do just that. By putting their energy behind fusion-voting, the Tea Party will ensure that -- win or lose in November -- they leave the American political scene "All Shook Up."

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