The Tea Party is a unique populist movement and moment in American history. There is no charismatic leader of the party. The Tea Party has more grassroots movers, shakers, and members than any other populist movement ever seen in our country. So what makes it so different from previous populist political factions?
"Populism" is a vague political concept. There have been populist (and wannabe populist) political movements on the left, on the right, and even in the middle (wherever that is) in the history of American politics. None of the movements were particularly successful -- and many of them were outright scams.
On the left, think of Democrat Senator John Edwards's attempt to define himself as a "populist" with his "two Americas" speeches. A multimillionaire trial lawyer tried to get himself elected President of the United States on the hypocritical distinction between "us and them" -- the rich and the poor. Edwards, of course, portrayed himself as the populist champion of the poor. Ponder George Wallace (whom the media called a "right-wing populist" rather than a Democrat racist) and his famous quote: "I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." Wallace was the Democrat Governor of Alabama when he made that statement in 1962. He won his election with the largest popular vote in the history of the state. Wallace went on to form the so-called "populist" American Independent Party in the late 1960s. And don't forget the über-populist Ross Perot and Reform Party USA. Perot and his political party stand for...for...for...political pundits are still trying to figure it out.
Not all populist (or faux populist) movements have been headed by a charismatic leader. The prohibitionist movement sought to outlaw the production, sale, and transportation of "intoxicating liquor." A populist crusade swept America, and as a result, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1919. Prohibition had no singular public personality as its lead proponent. "The Noble Experiment," as prohibition was called at the time, was a sui generis populist cause intended to establish a single moral effect.
By 1933, the impulse and attitude of the American people on the issue of alcohol consumption had swung in the opposite direction, and...poof! Beer was back. The 21st Amendment repealed the 18th[i]. Again, there was no one national figure to lead the repeal of the 18th Amendment. Americans had decided that they missed easy access to their adult beverages -- so the American people made a populist U-turn. Americans had grown weary of the shenanigans of the black-market hoodlums who supplied their illegal booze, and most Americans abhorred the massive government intrusions into everyday life that came with prohibition[ii]. So what makes the Tea Party different? I have attended several local Tea Party gatherings (and addressed a couple of them). There is one document that is ubiquitous at these events: the Constitution for the United States of America[iii]. People hand out copies of the Constitution like hors d'oeuvres that are served at...a de rigueur tea party.
At one Tea Party, I helped a women lug a couple of cardboard boxes filled with pocket-sized copies of the Constitution into the hotel conference room. We sat the boxes on a folding table next to the dais for the speakers. "I only bought a thousand copies. You think that will be enough?" she asked me.
I smiled. "Enough for today..." I started to reply.
"Excuse me," a man interrupted us. He carried another box full of copies of the Constitution and set his box on the table next to her two boxes. He opened his box and began handing out the Constitution to the people who were filing into the meeting room. "Plenty," I told the woman, and we laughed.
"Populist constitutionalism" -- that's what the Tea Party is all about. Love and respect for the Constitution is driving the movement. Sharing the document, and then discussing its meaning, purpose, and ideas -- that is the process that is taking place as a result of this love and respect.
This discussion is what America needs right now. The Constitution (and a real federal government) contains the set of principles that can unite all Americans (with the possible exception of the most radical of those on the left, who want to see some kind of socialist central state).
Social conservatives, fiscal conservatives (who might be liberal on some social issues), libertarians, and moderates can agree to disagree about issues like abortion, legalized drugs, gay marriage, etc. The Constitution teaches all of them that the resolution to these problems should be conducted on the state or community level, as opposed to the national level.
These divergent groups agree that the federal government has, over the last several decades, stepped farther and farther outside of the bounds of the Constitution. Issues including health care, cap-and-trade, and excessive regulation of businesses are outside the specific powers granted to the federal government. More and more Americans are aware of this fact. And more and more Americans are sharing the promises and the premises of the Constitution with their friends and neighbors through Tea Parties being held across America. This is what I mean when I say that the Tea Party is "populist constitutionalism."
The Tea Party movement is not a one-issue (one-hit) wonder like prohibition. Nor is it a bunch of political zombies mesmerized by some charismatic leader like an Edwards, a Wallace, or a Perot.
The Tea Party does not need a charismatic leader. It is essentially an ongoing educational process -- one that will be heard (one way or another) by tone-deaf and constitutionally ignorant politicians. The Tea Party teaches a multitude of Americans what they are no longer (or "rarely," I suppose I should write) taught in our public schools and universities: America was, from the beginning, intended to be a grand experiment in freedom and local and state control.
Take Nevada and Utah as instances. The states border each other. Yet one state endorses legalized gambling, prostitution, and easy access to liquor. Right nextdoor, teetotaling Utah frowns on all of these "immoral" practices.
That's the way the Founding Fathers wanted America to be. They knew that different people have different needs and values. They realized that they should be free to express those values legislatively on the state and community levels. If an American finds Nevada's laws too promiscuous (or Utah's laws too restrictive), the citizen can either work to change the laws of the particular state...or move across state lines.
There are and will continue to be arguments and dissention within the Tea Party. (The media is already noting this and eating it up.) But Americans are famous for contention and debate. No populist movement (unless it is focused on a single issue, like prohibition) will be in agreement on every issue. Disputation and disagreement in the Tea Party is a sign of health and enthusiasm, not a portent of dissolution. Populist constitutionalism is the surest and clearest path to saving our republic. Thank God (and I mean that literally) for that dedicated woman who asked me if she had brought enough copies of the Constitution to the Tea Party gathering. I will close by answering her as I should have when we were standing at that table: "As far as the Constitution goes, you can never have enough copies...and we should never stop learning as much as we can about the greatest political document ever written." Larrey Anderson is a writer, a philosopher, and submissions editor for American Thinker. He is the author of The Order of the Beloved, and the memoir Underground: Life and Survival in the Russian Black Market. [i] Notice that even though the process was long and convoluted, the American people did the right thing (legally, juridically, and constitutionally speaking) by passing constitutional amendments to address, and then readdress, the issue of prohibition. [ii] As an aside, those Americans who are intent on the central government running our health care should read the sordid history of how the federal government handled the prohibition of alcohol -- with the full authority of the Constitution to back the its actions. [iii] Interestingly, the original handwritten Constitution has no title. The first words, in those famous huge flowing letters, are "We the People..." The title, Constitution for [in some versions "of" was substituted for "for"] the United States of America was added when the handwritten Constitution was first printed and distributed to the public.