Lara Brown: The Tea Partiers and the Lessons of History





[Lara Brown, Ph.D., is assistant professor of political science at Villanova University. She is the author of Jockeying for the American Presidency: The Political Opportunism of Aspirants.]

Members of the Tea Party movement, according to liberal pundits are angry right-wing extremists. The progressive news website Alternet describes the movement as being “built on fear, violence, and race resentment.” New York Times columnist Frank Rich views the Tea Party as an invention of ultra-conservative billionaires and plugged-in operatives. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne thinks it is merely a “successful scam.” A Rasmussen Reports survey reveals that “a plurality (46%) of the political class says most members of the Tea Party are racist, but 53% of mainstream voters disagree.”

This fear and loathing of the Tea Party movement is clouding too many peoples’ judgment. If you don’t understand the Tea Party, you can’t develop political strategies that capitalize on the voter sentiment underlying it.

It’s helpful to gain some historical perspective in order to think about how campaigns may tap into what is better understood as a century-long brewing Jeffersonian reaction to the triumph and overreach of Hamiltonian nationalism. What? Exactly. Read on.

Although 73% of Tea Party supporters are conservative and 53% are angry, according a recent New York Times/CBS News survey, 71% do not believe it is ever justified to engage in violent action against the government. Eight percent consider themselves Democrats, 43% Independents, and 49% Republicans, according to recent Gallup polls.

Even though a large plurality of members (48%) in past elections have “usually voted Republican,” according to recent surveys, it should not be overlooked that only a few Tea Partiers have been consistently faithful to the GOP. In fact, more say they have voted equally for both Republicans and Democrats (25%) in past elections than say they have always voted Republican (18%)....

None of this is new in American history. Today’s restless political environment bears a striking resemblance to the historical period that spawned the progressive movement.

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt said: “At this moment we are passing through a period of great unrest – social, political, and industrial unrest.” Yet by the time he implored reformers to do more than “muck rake” and to pursue “a resolute and eager ambition to secure the betterment of the individual and the nation,” the people’s “fierce discontent” had been roiling the country for 30 years – since the highly controversial 1876 presidential election....


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