Most people would probably agree that the Republican Party is having a bit of an identity crisis right now. To all intents and purposes, Tea Party activists have been holding the rest of the GOP — and the country — hostage in their attempt to defund ObamaCare. That's just part of a longer-term pattern of far-right candidates launching primary challenges against their fellow Republican incumbents whenever they haven't been suitably "conservative" enough for the Tea Party wing.

Of course, some Republicans are in complete denial, as Fareed Zakaria points out at The Washington Post. They claim that the ongoing government shutdown is just like the GOP's "Contract with America" movement of the 1990s, when House Speaker Newt Gingrich led a strong, united and ideologically-oriented charge against the Clinton administration. That comparison is all very well and good, Zakaria says, except for one crucial difference: back then, Gingrich had complete control over the situation. Today, by contrast, Speaker John Boehner is "following rather than leading," worrying that "were he to make a deal, he would lose his job." That's no united charge. In fact, it shows a complete collapse of authority within the Republican Party.

What does that mean for the future of the GOP?

Zakaria thinks that, with less discipline within the Republican Party, threats and crises are going to become the new normal in American politics. But things could go in a much more radical direction — if the Tea Party has the guts for it. A recent Gallup poll shows that a whopping 43 percent of Tea Party activists now have an unfavorable view of their own party. If that opposition continues to grow, could Tea Partiers break off and form a party of their own?

We've been here before — with Greens, Libertarians and Ross Perot's United We Stand America — and none of those third parties ever really took off. But with the Tea Party it could be different. And it could change the setup of American politics for decades to come.

Why would the Tea Party make a good third party?

Third parties tend to fail because people are worried about wasting their votes on candidates that often have no name-recognition, says The Economist. But there are many reasons why the magazine thinks the Tea Party could buck that trend:

  • The Tea Party isn't some obscure fringe movement in American politics. It's a powerful force within an existing major party, and therefore comes with "ready-made political power in Congress."
  • A new party that already has members in Congress — as the Tea Party does — has already done a lot of the hard work. And with Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul — to name a few — acting as outspoken poster boys and girls for the movement, there's little doubt that party members would have name recognition.
  • Then there's the first-past-the-post system to take into account. A fringe party that gets 10 percent of the vote nationwide won't be much of a success. But a fringe party like the Tea Party, which could draw 10 percent of the vote, but concentrated in large swathes of the country, has a much higher chance of winning seats.
  • Because of all of the above, the Tea Party could be a feasible kingmaker. That would reassure people that they weren't wasting their votes.

Who else would benefit?

The Republican Party: If the Tea Party broke off — or was expelled — more moderate members of the GOP could use the opportunity to move the party towards the center. That way, Republicans could better challenge the Democrats in national elections. As Daniel Altman at Foreign Policy explains:

A reinvigorated Republican Party, under the banner of centrists like Chris Christie and Rob Portman, would not longer have its low-tax and small government messages polluted by anti-gay, anti-immigrant and anti-poor rhetoric. Such a party might even gain enough seats in swing and Democrat-held districts to replace the far-right votes it had lost. [Foreign Policy]

The Public: The Tea Party would only be giving the American people what they want, apparently. A new Gallup poll shows that a staggering 60 percent of Americans — the highest number measured in the history of the question — think that a major third party is needed. According to those questioned, the Democratic and Republican parties just don't adequately represent their interests any more.

So maybe it's time the Tea Party seized the moment.