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Independents & Tea Party, Part 2: How Populism Succeeds

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This is part 2 of a 3-part article.

Read Part 1 Here
Read Part 3 Here

Which group [independents or the Tea Party] is most likely to last? The answer probably depends on upcoming elections.

The Tea Parties are a populist movement, meaning that their popularity requires at least three things:

  1. An agreed upon enemy with enough power to evoke strong fears, anger and emotion
  2. An upcoming event to rally around, such as elections or national seminars
  3. A sense that they can actually change everything quickly and drastically

The first and second factors will stay around as long as a Democrat is in the White House.

Tea Party fervor may be lessened by the midterm elections if, and only if, a lot of Democrats lose—but will likely resurge again as the next presidential election nears.

The third requirement is what has generally doomed all historical populist movements. The Tea Party revolt is new and may gain energy. But things will change as soon as one major (and inevitable) event occurs.

When the Tea Party wins a major election and then watches its newly-elected candidates take office and join the system, it will turn its energy from activism to cynicism and lose momentum.

If those the Tea Party elects make a splash and take on the establishment, or symbolically seem to do so, the Tea Partiers will breathe easy, congratulate themselves on their victory and go back to non-political life.

If the new officials make few changes and Washington seems as bad as ever, many Tea Party enthusiasts will lose faith and give up on activism. More on this later.

The History of Conservative Populism

This series of events is cyclical, and the pattern has repeated itself many times. The Anti-Federalists, Whigs and Moral Majority all, in their day, fizzled out on this cycle.

Likewise, “constitutionalism” arose during the 1960’s, gained influence with publications and seminars in the 1970’s, and culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan.

After his inauguration, most constitutional organizations saw their donations and budgets halved—or worse—and many disappeared. The term “constitutionalist” lost it power—indeed, became a label for energetic irrelevance—and the nation moved on.

After Reagan, Rush Limbaugh increased in popularity and influence leading up to and throughout the Clinton years, and his radio show became the rallying point of conservative populism.

The press worried about the growing power of talk radio and both major political parties listened daily to Limbaugh’s commentary and strategized accordingly.

“Dittoheads” (Limbaugh fans) saw Clinton as the great enemy and rallied around elections, the Contract with America, and (between elections) Limbaugh’s show.

But with the election of Republican George W. Bush, Dittohead Nation congratulated itself on victory and mostly turned to non-political life. Today there is little excitement about or commentary on becoming a Dittohead.

It should be acknowledged that conservative populist movements have often added positive ideas to the national discussion and many of its leaders have helped raise awareness of freedom and promote citizen involvement.

In this sense, Anti-Federalists, Whigs, the Moral Majority, Constitutionalists, Dittoheads and the Tea Parties are not insignificant to American politics. They have had, and likely still will, huge impact.

To be continued…

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Independents & Tea Party, Part 2: How Populism Succeeds