In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the British Labour Party was seen by many as having retreated from the centre ground of British politics into an obsession with left-wing ideological purity. In 1981, a significant number of centrist members left to join the breakaway SDP, pushing the balance of the party's remaining membership further to the left by default. At the same time, a Trotskyist group called Militant was alleged to have been using entryist tactics to expand its influence within the party.

Labour's 1983 manifesto1, popularly known as "The longest suicide note in history", was an unusually detailed document, containing many policy positions considered radically outside the mainstream of popular opinion at the time, and expressed in language which appealed more to the hard left than the general public.

Labour suffered a massive electoral defeat in 1983, partly as a result of votes lost to the SDP, and conventional wisdom in the UK holds that its return to electability was won only as a result of its shift during the late 1980s and early 1990s to a more centrist position (which, among other things, involved the expulsion of many known and suspected Militant members from the party).

I'd like to know:

  1. Is there a name for the phenomenon of a movement or party accelerating away from the mainstream as "moderate" supporters leave and previously "fringe"2 elements seek to gain influence? I've used "radicalised" in the title of this question, but it seems insufficient.

  2. Is the phenomenon always, or even usually, associated with a loss of wider political influence, as would seem logical (since fewer voters will identify with a less mainstream set of policies)?

  3. To what extent could it be argued that the Tea Party in the US is a Libertarian version of an entryist group in the mould of Militant?

1 Labour Party Manifesto, 1983

2 This is not intended as a pejorative; if there's a better word I didn't think of, I'd be interested to hear it.

  • 1
    "Radicalized" is very hard to define objectively (it's possible and I saw Nate Silver attempt to do so, albeit IMHO not fully successfully).
    – user4012
    Dec 22, 2012 at 12:41

1 Answer 1

  1. I'm not yet able to answer if the phenomenon has an official PoliSci name.

  2. I would argue that such an outcome is not guaranteed.

    Presumably, Hitler's policies were not exactly mainstream in the early 1930s yet Nazi popularity grew instead of shrinking. This had more to do with the ability of ideas and policies to attract popular support where they had none before, turning them into "mainstream".

    Same can be said of progressives in USA, although here the example works to both sides of your question. A large chunk of their actual policies were not nearly mainstream for most of USA's history, yet the same exact policies produced both Walter Mondale's 525/13 electoral loss to Reagan in 1984 (interestingly tempered by the fact that, while losing 49 states out of 50, he still managed to harvest 40% of national popular vote vs Reagan's 59%). But, after the same policies attracted more support, Obama's 2008 365/173 EV win over McCain (53%/45% popular vote split) became possible. Of course, both cases were not helped by the fact that Reagan was a super talented politician and McCain ... I suppose saying "sucked" would be too subjective for StackExchange, but he did - the whole suspending campaign due to financial crisis being the most glaring example.

    The main factors affecting whether such a radicalization helps or hurts seem to be:

    A. having an extremely skillful populist politician at the helm (Hitler was universally regarded as an extremely effective orator, and Mein Kampf is written in a highly convincing style).

    B. Having unique set of circumstances where a combination of environmental changes (demographics, economy) makes the opposition greatly unpopular and your own policies appear to have effective - at least short term - fixes. Hitler would have been a footnote of history if not for Germany's internal issues in the wake of Versailles treaty. Obama was greatly helped by both unpopularity of Iraq war, Bush's political ineptitude, and financial crisis (pre-crisis, McCains polls were on par or better, if I recall); as well as dramatically shifting demographics of the country.

  3. Numbers say that Tea Party is nowhere near "extreme"/"radicalized" as mass media paint them. Therefore they can't be equated to entryist Trotskists, I would argue.

    Recall that their main political positions are balancing the budget via reducing federal spending and not increasing taxes; and as a specific policy example of this trend, objections to Obamacare. Let's see how that sits with American people as far as being "extreme":

    • Obamacare:

      • 2012/11/18 Gallup poll found that 54% think that is NOT the business of government to ensure that everyone has healthcare, vs 44% approve:

        enter image description here

      • A separate Dec 2012 CNN poll found that Obamacare is opposed/supported by 52%/42%.

    • Balancing the budget via spending vs. taxes:

      • According to this 2012/12/11 poll (yadd yadda, Faux Evil News - except the poll was conducted by a joint R and D affiliated companies, as live phone interviews, and included cell phones which as per Nate Silver is supposed to be the main methodological deficiency between good and bad polls last year):

        • "Which do you think is the BEST way to deal with the country’s budget problems?"

          • 57%: Mostly with cuts in government spending
          • 20%: Mostly with tax increases
          • 18%: Both (Both) (Other)
          • 5%: Other/Don't know
        • "Do you think raising taxes on the wealthy can solve the country’s budget problems -- or do you think major spending cuts are necessary also?"

          • 61%: No, major spending cuts are necessary also
          • 33%: Yes, raising taxes on wealthy can solve budget problems

      Please note that the numbers above are from overall population, if you only break out Republicans, they are even higher.

    • Beneson Survey of Obama voters (on behalf of a Democratic think tank!) found that:

      • 41% who supported the Democratic incumbent want to get control of the deficit mostly by cutting spending, with only some tax increases,
      • another 41% want to solve it mostly with tax increases and only some spending cuts

      Hardly a sign of "extremism" when 41% of opposing party agrees with you on the main point.

    Now, it is true some Tea Party candidates were defeated in 2012. However, very few had anything to do solely with "extreme" Tea Party views. Two of the most infamous defeats were because the candidates stopped running on Tea Party fiscal platform and decided to open their idiot mouths and start running as religious conservatives, which was precisely what Tea Party platform was NOT about, and several narrowly lost due to coattail effects from Obama's ticket). Even so, Republicans

    • retained a solid majority of the House (lost between 6 and 12 seats, this seems to be inconsistent)

    • lost only 2 seats in the Senate

    • wound up BETTER against Obama than McCain in 2008 (332/206 vs 2008 365/173 EVs, and 51%/47% vs 2008 53%/45% popular vote)

  • Not that I disagree, but "decided to open their idiot mouths" might be considered subjective ;-) Anyway ... I see now that my #3 could have been better phrased. I'm not so much interested in whether the Tea Party can claim that it represents "true" Republicanism, or "the people" (Militant would have made an analogous claim), but whether its tactics could be argued to be entryism. The recent "Boehner purge" hints that parts of the GOP now view it in the way Labour eventually came to view Militant (which prompted the question to some extent). Anyway, upvote for the typically thorough answer :-)
    – user97
    Dec 22, 2012 at 16:49
  • @ZeroPiraeus - Oh. I don't see how that tactics differs from tactics of ANY political group, especially in a 2-party system. Everyone wants their strain to represent the whole party. Tea Party obviously fits, but so do 100% other strains. The only difference about Milinat faction was that they were indeed, as proven by political results, not popular in their policies.
    – user4012
    Dec 22, 2012 at 17:03
  • @ZeroPiraeus - also, your question explicitly stated 'phenomenon of a movement or party accelerating away from the mainstream as "moderate" supporters leave and previously "fringe"2 elements seek to gain influence?'; so it seems to be more about ideology/support than tactics.
    – user4012
    Dec 22, 2012 at 17:04
  • Given the polls I provided, I would posit that if any faction fits your analogy it would be the Big Government "we don't mind high taxes and our own high spending" Bush GOP. They are not "fringe", but they seem on many topics to be in the slim minority even among ALL Americans, never mind GOP.
    – user4012
    Dec 22, 2012 at 17:07
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    Oh, and as for "idiot mouths", of course it's objective. A person running on a tea party platform (and thus won the primary) who doesn't have the mental discipline to talk about fiscal conservatism and talks to the press about rape where his views are in extreme minority, has an obvious mental capacity of a distractable 3 year old.
    – user4012
    Dec 22, 2012 at 17:22

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