Care for Some Tea?

When does a fringe movement become something to worry about?

That’s a question we may have to ask at some point in the future about the so-called “tea-baggers” organizing the still-small, but growing protests known as Tea Parties. News reports said that about 1,500 events were held July 4, about twice the number that was held in April, and a taxpayers’ march is planned for Sept. 12.

The movement is somewhat marginal, especially when compared with the protests opposing the Iraq War. But that hasn’t stopped some commentators — especially on Fox News — from comparing the rallies to the Civil Rights marches of the 1960s and other mass-movements for change.

Mark DiIonno, a columnist for the Star-Ledger in New Jersey, said the “Tea Party movement” could be seen as “the beginnings of the second American Revolution,” one that, “like the first … will have started with a tax revolt, and anger at an unresponsive government.”

The “movement is becoming a national phenomenon,” he wrote. The protests “could soon be the grassroots seeds of a third political party, one designed to reform government, and bring it back to basics.”

Hyperbole? Yes. As I said, the tea-baggers are a rather small lot, unrepresentative of the larger population (overwhelmingly white, for instance) — but they are worth paying attention to.

As with the Goldwater campaign of the early 1960s, which essentially was a fringe movement of libertarian conservatives that took over the Republican Party, the tea-partiers appear at first blush to be curiosities. Their calls to arms are taxes, government spending and a visceral dislike of socialism, and their early protests have featured some rhetoric that came as close as you can get to crossing the line into xenophobia and racism.

But they are plugging into something bubbling up from the depths of the American psyche, the discontent that has been festering since the economic crash and that has not been adequately addressed by the federal government. (State governments are not equipped, because of their balanced-budget requirements, to deal with much of this mess.)

As much as we on the left like to make fun of the so-called tea-baggers, we have to acknowledge their potential power. Consider the Goldwater campaign. Barry Goldwater lost his presidential race in 1964 to Lyndon Johnson in one of the biggest landslides in American history. Within two years, Ronald Reagan would rise from the ash heaps of the Goldwater movement, using much of Goldwater’s rhetoric to charge into the California state house; Richard Nixon would build his 1968 presidential campaign on the same lingering resentments and the conservative movement would make steady inroads into government, eventually taking it over. (Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland offers a detailed history of the eight years between Goldwater’s loss and Nixon’s landslide re-election.)

There was a political tone-deafness among liberals at the time, due in part to LBJ’s success. LBJ, however, knew that the liberal moment was passing — he famously predicted the Republican takeover of the South after he signed the Civil Rights Act.

Fast forward to today: Liberals control the White House and both houses of Congress. The president, Barack Obama, remains incredibly popular and the Republican brand has been so badly damaged that there are moments when it appears the party will disintegrated into itself.

And yet, we have to ask whether liberals already have grown comfortable with their newfound power, whether they are misreading the election of Barack Obama as something more than a complete disenchantment with the last eight years. Obama made his campaign about change, but what we’ve been witnessing during his first six months in office has been a timid incrementalism, one that has left much of the bankrupt power structure in place. He has surrounded himself with ex-Clinton hands, has dialed back his bold agenda — the stimulus was far smaller than many economists thought necessary, for instance — and shown a dangerous willingness to compromise even what we thought were deeply held principles.

This is not the kind of change that was envisioned. While most of the tea-baggers were never likely to be Obama supporters, their disaffection could spread if Obama isn’t careful.

There always will be a fringe element on the right, a Goldwater/Reagan faction that views any government action as anti-American. Its power will wax and wane.

If liberals do not act more aggressively, if they cannot explain their approach clearly and transparently, if they do not demonstrate to the disenchanted and discontented middle that they are moving the country in the right direction, then this supposed liberal moment will be a short one and the Goldwater/Reagan trajectory of the second half of the 1960s could play out once more.

Hank Kalet is a poet and online editor for The Princeton Packet newspaper group. Email; blog;;

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2009

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