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Analysis: Americans should examine the Liberal Democrats

US commentators are drawing the wrong lessons from the UK election results.

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, right, and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg arrive for their first joint press conference in the garden of 10 Downing Street in London on May 12, 2010. (Christopher Furlong/Pool/Reuters)

LONDON, United Kingdom — All politics is local — a cliche but true. Although this hasn't stopped the great institutions of American journalism from rushing out reams of commentary — most of it written by people who don't live in Britain — about the result of the British election and its meaning for the United States.

The fact that America doesn't have a viable third party — just the occasional nutty billionaire creating a political movement around his ego — should warn everyone off easy comparisons between Britain's new coalition government and what America is stuck with.

If anything, what the election has done is cement the fact that a rare era of parallel political development between the mother country and rebellious oldest child is over. The days when Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton inhaled on one side of the Atlantic and Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair exhaled on the other are gone. The relationship between the U.K. and U.S. is special but the nations are no longer joined at the hip.

No, if the election holds any comparative value at all, it is for Republican and Democratic grassroots activists — the true believers — who like their parties to be pure of heart and ideology.

First, you need to know the history of the Liberal Democrats:

The Lib Dems are a hybrid. The Liberal Party, the party of William Gladstone, was one of the big two in Britain throughout the 19th century and up to the 1920s when it was overtaken by Labour. The Liberals faded into insignificance, until the party became a vestigial organ like an appendix inside the British body politic.

By the 1970s, the last time they played a significant national role, the Liberals had become a party primarily for the professional classes who found the Conservatives too harsh in dealing with Britain's social problems but who didn't fit the working-class profile of the Labour party. Class is overwhelmingly important in this country.

In 1979 came Margaret Thatcher, the most radical prime minister of the last half-century. Her policies polarized the country and the Labour Party, which veered to the hard left. But there simply wasn't enough room in the British political landscape for another minority party, and in 1988 the Social Democratic Party and Liberal Party merged to create the Liberal Democrats.

The Lib Dems slowly built their grassroots from moderates on all sides, but mainly from the left. But the party was hampered in general elections by Britain's winner-take-all, first-past-the-post system. Its percentage of the popular vote was never reflected in the number of parliamentary seats it won.

Electoral reform, based on proportional representation, became its core policy. It was a policy that Tony Blair was on the verge of endorsing back in 1997, until he led the Labour Party to a historic landslide and decided not to reform a system that had given Labour a majority that would take four elections to overturn.