Support Crosscut

Tea Party anger cuts both ways

Teddy Roosevelt, patron saint of the Progressive Movement

My Monday Crosscut article regarding national economic distress, and the growing populist outrage flowing from it, used Ross Perot and his 1992 presidential candidacy as an example of such populist rebellion. The Perot candidacy had the unintended consequence of diverting enough votes from President George H.W. Bush to put Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in the White House.

Thus far most media coverage has featured Tea Party and other protests as being rooted in the Republican Party and generating 2010 opposition to incumbent Democratic congressional candidates. But consequences could be wider than that. The movement also could hit Republican incumbents and challengers this fall and change the political landscape thereafter.

It is important to differentiate between various third-party and independent movements. What they all have in common is that they are reactionary; that is, they are reactions against policies identified with mainstream parties and candidates.

Perot’s candidacy had its roots in disquiet over growing public deficits and debt.

By contrast, Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s 1968 and 1972 candidacies were based mainly in populist resentment against what were perceived as the national Democratic Party’s leftward tilt and its alienation from middle-American voters and values.

Surveys after the 1968 election, won narrowly by Richard Nixon over Vice President Hubert Humphrey, showed that Nixon owed his victory in large part to defections by traditional blue-collar, bread-and-butter Democratic voters to both Nixon and Wallace in states such as Illinois, Ohio, and New Jersey. The anti-Vietnam War movement was important in the Democratic nominating process that year. But, surveys showed, most peace voters cast Humphrey ballots in the general election. What later would be called Reagan Democrats, voting either for Wallace or Nixon, had been the pivotal voting bloc in the election.

Most media in 1968 saw the Wallace candidacy as based in protest against national Democratic association with civil-rights issues. Actively involved in that year’s campaign, I saw it that way too; so did Humphrey. But most of the protest vote turned out to be about what these early-day Reagan Democrats saw as excessive welfare-state spending and social activism — both leaving these voters feeling on the outside.

In 1972, Sen. George McGovern lost by a landslide to Nixon as Reagan Democrats’ defections became even more pronounced. These same voters, already uncomfortable with national Democratic leaders’ Great Society orientations, were further alienated in 1972 by the party’s new social-issue stances. The Democratic national convention of that year was characterized as being the “acid, amnesty, and abortion” convention. (I served as McGovern’s platform manager that year; both I and our platform staff members spent much of our time trying to modify what we knew would be politically-alienating demands by single-issue groups intent on having their way, regardless of the effect on their Presidential nominee’s fall prospects).

Looking further back, to 1948, the first post-World War II Democratic Party national convention was split three ways: There was the majority faction supporting the reelection of President Harry Truman; a civil-rights-resisting Southern faction which broke off to form the Dixiecrat Party and the candidacy of Sen. Strom Thurmond; and a leftward faction which broke off to form the Progressive Party candidacy of former Vice President Henry Wallace. Truman, almost miraculously, defeated New York Gov. Thomas Dewey in the general election.

In 1912, you recall, the split was in the Republican Party as former President Theodore Roosevelt bolted his party to run as the Bull Moose Party candidate against President William Howard Taft, thus electing President Woodrow Wilson. A good part of TR’s support came from Republicans rebelling against what they saw as their party’s too-close association with big financial and industrial interests.

What is the nature of the growing 2010 insurgency?

It has much in common with the 1968 and 1972 uprisings by former mainstream Democrats who, by 1980, had migrated in large part to support of Reagan. But it has a more urgent tone because, in 2010, huge numbers of Americans have been personally hit by national financial and economic distress. They are angry, it should be emphasized, not just with incumbent Democratic officeholders — the “ins” who traditionally get blamed when things get tough — but with incumbents in general, who are perceived as out of touch with their grassroots.

Consider the example of Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, who will be hard pressed to hold his Arizona Senate seat, even though he has a huge campaign-funding advantage over J.C. Hayworth, a former congressman and talk-show host. Conventional wisdom has it that Hayworth is running to McCain’s “right” and carrying the banner of “right-wing extremists.” But that is a misreading. Hayworth mainly is faulting McCain’s and his wife’s family wealth, multi-home lifestyle, and lack of contact with ordinary Arizona voters of any party. Though McCain is known nationally as being active on several major issues, he is known in Arizona as an absentee who over the years has shown little interest in his home state’s well being — except for an occasional favor for major campaign contributors.

Texas Sen. Kay Hutchison recently lost a Republican gubernatorial primary on the same basis, that she might be big-time nationally but was not in touch with the interests and concerns of ordinary Texans. Florida Republican Gov. Charlie Crist faces a tough primary challenge on a similar issue: publicly praising and supporting President Obama’s expensive 2009 economic-stimulus package.

Present-day Tea Party and other insurgents no doubt include some folk from the fringe, both left and right. But think of them mainly as hardworking people, regardless of political party, who have paid their taxes, kept up with their mortgages, saved for their retirements, and had high aspirations for their kids — only to be harmed by what they see as government- and private-sector big shots who have screwed up the financial system, handed out rescues to those who did not play by the rules, and put huge debt burdens on the backs of middle-income families who are not wealthy enough to be insulated from trouble or poor enough to get government assistance.

Think of the Reagan Democrats of 1968, 1972, and into the 1980s, and then add people of all persuasions who think the system has screwed them over the past two years. Yes, incumbent Democratic candidates should fear them. But so should Republicans who can be seen as part of the mainstream which has brought these angry voters to this place.

They are not leading us to a Sarah Palin presidency. She happens, temporarily, to be showing up at rallies and generating their enthusiasm. The movement has yet to sort through its agenda or its national political favorites. Right now it is just angry and acting out.

Can you think of local political figures who are riding a populist wave without even pretending to have a finished, balanced agenda for governance? Of course there is Tim Eyman, the anti-tax initiative king. How about Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn? Now you’re catching my drift.

Read more about:

Support Crosscut