‘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.
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The path ahead for such a movement can be challenging, Professor De Luca says. By trying to wield more national power, “you have a movement with its own base, and then it tries to fight its way through an electoral system that is horrible for third parties,” he says.
One of the most direct and recent parallels happened not on the Potomac, but in Paris.
In the 1950s, the tax revolters called the Poujadists, led by a stocky shopkeeper named Pierre Poujade, culminated in an anti-elitist and anti-parliamentarian protest that had a heavy impact on the 1956 French elections.
Like the tea partyers, the Poujadists had witty signs protesting the urban professional class that had lost contact “with the real world.” And like the tea-party movement, the Poujadists lacked a platform (although the tea party is working on one).
In another parallel, “[t]he group’s rallying cry – Sortez les sortants! (‘Throw the bums out!’) – challenged the right as well as the left,” Robert Zaretsky, a professor of French history at the University of Houston’s Honors College, wrote recently in The New York Times.
“During the ... elections, the Poujadists bulldozed their way into town meetings, shouting down opposing candidates ...: a grim rehearsal for Tea Party tactics during last year’s health care debates,” Prof. Zaretsky wrote. But once the Poujadists gained power, “[s]logans and placards were poor preparation for governance,” he added.
Professor Watson says that the tea party also taps into what he calls a “deeper xenophobic feeling.” That’s been fueled, he says, by a decade that saw two long wars, a meltdown of the US economy, and the election of “a black president with a strange name.”
“You saw it with the John Birch Society, the Sagebrush Rebellion, the conspiracy theory stuff on the radical right and left: We’ve always had this paranoid element percolating,” Watson says.
Historical parallels show how difficult it can be to steer a political insurgency in an entrenched two-party system. It’s a system that can breed, as De Luca says, “the kind of resentment that comes with powerlessness.”
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