‘Tea party’ movement: lessons from earlier uprisings
While movements like the tea party have fervor and anger, historians caution that such groups can quickly lose momentum and influence.
The first-ever Tea Party Nation convention this weekend in Nashville, Tenn., taps into two great, and sometimes troubling, traditions in American history – both of which have to do with the unique democratic experiment that is America.Skip to next paragraph
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On the one hand is the Jeffersonian strain – a return to the ideals of the individual and the blessings of small, restrained government. On the other hand is a strain of McCarthy-type paranoia that started well before the mid-1900s. In the 1850s, it gave rise to the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party, and according to some critics, it was a factor in the xenophobic supremacist movements of the late 20th century.
Now, at the “tea party” convention, the fractious movement will try to agree on its basic principles. It will also try to decide whether to wield its growing power locally or nationally.
“This is one of these moments we’re going to be teaching in 20 years,” says Robert Watson, a political science professor at Lynn University, in Boca Raton, Fla. “It’s a moment that changes America’s democracy and citizen involvement.”
But while movements like the tea party have fervor and anger, historians caution that such groups can quickly lose momentum and influence: Their passion might be absorbed by one of the two main political parties, or their complaints could be addressed by changing circumstances.
Political historians draw a parallel between the tea-party movement and the populist movement of the 1880s. Back then, yeoman farmers in the West and South built a political base by pushing back against the influence of railroad barons and corporate grain operators.
Under the banner of the People’s Party, these populists got 8 percent of the presidential vote in 1892, with James Weaver as their candidate. They carried four states in that election.
But times were about to change. “Then, some in the movement make an alliance with the Democrats” ahead of the 1896 election, says Tom De Luca, a political science professor at Fordham University in New York. “They go down in defeat, and the populist movement is weakened and fades. Those kinds of decisions are in store for the tea party.”