Politics of anger

A little less than a year ago, when the first of the Tea Party gatherings burst on the political scene, many observers dismissed Tea Party participants as right-wing wackos, stooges of talk radio or clandestine Republican operatives.

Politicians dismiss the Tea Party folks today at their own peril. Tea Party activists can legitimately claim to have helped stall health legislation last fall. Their concerns about high taxes and government spending helped elect Republican governors in New Jersey and Virginia last November. Add to those issues rising anger over the exploding federal deficit, health care reform, national security and individual freedom, and it’s clear that Tea Party issues played a significant role in the election of Republican Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts last month.

Just this past weekend, the Tea Party held its first national convention in Nashville, Tenn., with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as its keynote speaker.

Unfortunately, action at the convention showed there is a fringe element associated with the Tea Party movement.

One speaker, representing so-called “birther” conspiracy theorists, repeated old suspicions about President Barack Obama’s citizenship. Former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, an anti-immigrant crusader, drew comparisons to the Jim Crow South when he suggested there should be a “civics literacy test” for voting.

But most of the speakers, Palin included, stayed far away from such divisive claims. They stuck with budget and security issues.

The Tea Party movement is decidedly populist. It has attracted millions of people who have never been involved in politics before. Although its members generally adhere to conservative ideas, Republican leaders have not been able to co-opt the movement for their own purposes. In fact, some Tea Party participants have become angry when they felt pressured into supporting GOP candidates, as a letter to the editor on this page today makes clear.

The Tea Party has been compared to the populist drives of William Jennings Bryan in the late 19th century and Ross Perot almost two decades ago. But, unlike those efforts, the Tea Partiers aren’t trying to form a third party. And, while many in the Tea Party clearly adore Palin, she is not the leader of the group. She said as much this weekend, noting that the organization was driven from the ground up, not the top down.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, writing in The Wall Street Journal last Friday, referred to such people as part of the “Mad as hell” party. It includes people from both the left and right who distrust corporations and global trade, detest Wall Street bailouts and hate the coziness of politicians with lobbyists.

” ‘Mad as hellers’ are likely to be a formidable force in the upcoming midterm elections and beyond,” Reich said.

We suspect he is correct, although the anger seems far more focused among those on the right than the left these days. Politicians who dismiss the Tea Party and its issues as inconsequential, and adhere to politics as usual, may very well find themselves looking for new jobs before long.


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