Tea Party Populism: America’s Drift Rightward

The meteoric rise of the Tea Party movement since last year has gathered a lot of media attention. Previously consisting of right-wing radical fringe groups like the John Birch Society, its membership has spread to include many apolitical Americans who have become mistrustful of the federal government and disenchanted with the current recession. A recent story in the NY Times sheds light on this growing movement. As it states, “The ebbs and flows of the Tea Party ferment are hardly uniform. It is an amorphous, factionalized uprising with no clear leadership and no centralized structure.

This surge of grassroots anti-government populism has caught Congressional liberals off guard, as first evidenced by the vicious ways that Health Care Reform town hall meetings were shut down in many cities last summer. What seems to be most perplexing to liberal democrats who favor an active federal government is how the populist right has been able to appropriate the mantle of progressive politics. By morphing into a movement of the common people rallying against the “oppressive tyranny” of the federal government, they have tapped into a long-running strand of anti-government discourse that runs throughout American history.  

This shows that our own understanding of politics as spanning the progressive-reactionary spectrum can no longer (if it ever did) describe what is going on. Grassroots activism is no longer a mandate of the Left, as it was abandoned for a quietist faith in government solutions to socio-political problems. Now it has been taken up by groups propagating states’ rights, gun rights, deregulated markets, and a host of other causes ranging from the benign to the quasi-fascistic. Meanwhile, as the watered down center-left now holds a tenuous place of power in Washington, its own history of grassroots activism and civil disobedience has largely waned.

It is the deadening spirit of genuine progressive activism in American politics that is the most troubling part of this story. The increasingly disenfranchised middle classes have made their political commitment by drifting rightward in the direction of populism. Perhaps now is the time for a new popular front on the Left to emerge, one that can stop this movement in its tracks.

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