Tea Party Fits Into Long American Tradition

Hector Moldonado drove through the night from Missouri to Washington, D.C., to protest the House of Representatives passing health-care reform. His compatriots carried signs with slogans such as SOCIALISM IS NOT FREEDOM, CUT THE SIZE OF GOVERNMENT, NOT OUR WALLETS, and NO TAX MONEY FOR ABORTION. And there were mashup pictures, of President Obama as Hitler and The Joker.

Moldonado, an intense but polite man, explained his reason for being there simply by saying, "I'm from a small, patriotic town," as if the line from that to anger at federal subsidies to buy health insurance were completely obvious. He's an Army veteran and said he wanted to run for office. Yet he seethed with resentment of the federal government: of its power to tax, to influence if not regulate economic and social life, to—in his view—"kill" the unborn children of America. "I'm pro-life," he said. "No compromise." Feds were not to be trusted, more evil than good.

This is the Populism of the right, 2010. Like earlier versions, it is angry, fearful, worried about losing ground to "Them." And, in the eyes of the right, President Barack Obama is chief executive of "Them."

A Gallup poll shows that, demographically, tea partiers are different from America as a whole, but not radically. They are noticeably more male, a little whiter, a little older, a little better off, but not by much. There are fewer among them who are unemployed than in the population overall. This is a revolt of middle-class "haves," but "haves" who fear, with some justification, that their hold is slipping. They blame Wall Street, but they blame government more.

Tea-party sentiment is nothing new. If you don't count Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, it goes back at least to the anti-immigration Know Nothings of the 1840s. And of course we fought the Civil War over the issue of the extent of federal power, especially as it applies to questions of race. In the decades after that war, populist movements rose on the left, from Wobblies to progressives. Their energy and agendas found their way into electoral politics, especially in the first half of the last century, and in the civil-rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s and early 1970s.

But in recent decades—at least until the advent of Obama—much of the electoral energy has come from the right: Sen. Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrats in 1948; Gov. George Wallace's American Independent Party in 1968; the anti-abortion movement that arose after the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973, culminating in the rise of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority; Howard Jarvis's anti-property-tax crusade in California in 1978; the direct-mail-based, anticommunist "New Right" of 1980. With the election of Ronald Reagan (and later, the Bushes), Republicans were able to turn the populist right into the mainstream.

Now Republicans have to do the same thing without getting mired in the tar pit of right-wing paranoia. Nor can the GOP afford to let the tea partiers drift into a third party. The warning comes from no less an authority than former Vice President Dan Quayle, who is convinced that he and George H.W. Bush were defeated by Bill Clinton and Al Gore in 1992 because billionaire Ross Perot, running as an independent, got 19 percent of the vote.

If tea-party people run independently, Quayle wrote in a Washington Post piece, "a potential electoral majority on the threshold of victory would become two minority factions almost certain to share in defeat, and a movement inspired to stop the big-government agenda would suddenly become its tool."

On the other side of the political street, Democrats and liberals need to understand that the tea party's fear of national government is not new in America. Nor is it strange. Nor is it necessarily wrong. In fact, many independent voters who supported Obama did so out of disgust at the big-spending, deficit-creating, overreach of George W. Bush. In some ways the tea party is America: one side of an argument about government that was designed never to end, and never should.

The Founding Fathers spent a long summer in Philadelphia in 1787 struggling for ways to balance our native distrust of centralized authority with the need for unity, order, and law. They admired the bravery of the Boston Tea Party of 1773, and hated kings, but wrote a constitution that embodied their fear of the mob and the centrifugal force of independence of the states, cities, and towns.

From the moment it came into being, the federal government was viewed by some as a conspiracy of Northeast metropolitan elites, bankers, bureaucrats, foreigners, and foreign forces preying on an innocent, free people. Supporters of Jefferson and Jackson felt that way, but their leaders were able to channel those resentments into a larger, more optimistic vision of a growing continental nation.

The Know-Nothings were the first political movement based primarily on fear, in their case, the fear of immigrants and Catholicism. In a mostly Protestant country, the influx of Irish and Italian immigrants was greeted with horror, especially in the Midwest and especially when economic times turned tough for middle-class workers. No one remembers it now, but the Know-Nothings claimed 43 members of Congress in 1855—the same year anti-Catholic riots in Louisville, Ky., killed 22 people.

With Strom Thurmond, the tipping point wasn't religion but race. After the Democrats wrote a civil-rights plank into their platform, he led Southerners out of the regular party's ranks and into something called the States' Rights Democratic Party. He and the Dixiecrats won South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama in 1948.

George Wallace took up the same theme—states' rights—when he burst onto the national scene out of Alabama in 1964 and ran for president in 1968 as the candidate of the American Independent Party. He won 13.5 percent of the vote and 46 electoral votes in five Southern states: the four won by Thurmond in 1948, plus Arkansas.

Race is often, though not always, central to the anti-federal populism of the right. But it's too simple to accuse every activist of racism. Protesters and voters fear that someone far away, whom they don't know, is deciding their fate.

That was the sense I got years ago in Louisville, one of the cities in which court-ordered busing inflamed sentiments in the 1970s. I had started my journalism career there and covered the anti-busing crowds. Under the watchful eye of federal marshals, African-American students were bused to a suburban school on a busy road called, appropriately, Dixie Highway. You could say that the fear that I saw in the eyes of the white mothers who lined the driveway was all about race. But I read it more as fear of a distant, impersonal governmental authority. It's an understandable emotion and, in America, we are lucky enough to have an outlet.

It's called the ballot box.

Howard Fineman is the author of The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country.