Simon (Schama) Says …

Simon Schama, a respected and erudite British historian, opines in FT.com that we are “On the brink of a new age of rage” as financial and economic systems in Europe and America melt down. I think he overstates the power of the American variant of inchoate rage–the Tea Party–as he writes:

The best way to understand the Tea Party, which has just scored its first victory with the libertarian Rand Paul defeating the choice of the official Republican party, is to see it as akin to the Great Awakenings and the Populist furies of the end of the 19th century. There are calls to abolish the Federal Reserve or in some cases Social Security, fuelled by the conspiratorial belief that it was an excess, not a deficit, of government regulation that brought on the financial meltdown. Claims that Washington has been captured for socialism are preached on rightwing talk radio as gospel truth. As they did in the 1930s with Father Coughlin, the radio demonisers are pitch-perfect orchestrators of hatred for listeners in bewildered economic distress.

Sure, Senate candidate Rand Paul is explicitly of and for the Tea Party “movement.” But he is the only one after well over a year of organizing by that faction. Senator Scott Brown is a weak tea bag, to be sure. And others lost primary races or special elections.

Schama looks to widespread 19th Century movements, but compared to the Tea Party, these seem to have spanned a much wider range of American social, economic, religious and political arenas.

And, despite Father Coughlin’s screeds in the 1930s, FDR was re-elected multiple times and his New Deal policies, for the most part, remained intact until at least WWII. 

Ultimately, third party movements fail in American politics. Politicians of the Tea Party persuasion will have to do much better to move Congress over to their point of view on issues such as the Fed and Social Security. In today’s Senate, 60 votes are needed to move serious legislation. Does anyone really believe the Tea Party movement can field 60 senators … ever? And, there will always be Democrats.

Finally, in our political system, it is a rare interlude when one party controls both houses of Congress and the White House. 

Time will tell, of course, but like as not, today’s Tea Party movement will continue to be the locus of a certain virulent strain of political and social activism that will gradually be reabsorbed into the political body politic. It might move the center a little to the right, but if it goes too far, then watch out for those Coffee people on the left.

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