Remember the "Gay '90s"? The gay 1890s, that is? Of course you don't. But neither would those Americans who lived through that decade, were they still living today, because the '90s were anything but joyous and carefree. It was a decade of unprecedented economic depression, corporate hegemony, labor unrest, plunging commodity prices and two-party dominance, all of which ignited what is generically known today as the "populist movement" -- the late 19th-century's Tea Party.
Although Populism was hijacked by the bizarre economic theory of inflation-on-demand through the "free" and unlimited coinage of silver, many of its political goals -- e.g., railroad regulation, an income tax, direct election of U.S. senators -- were not only sensible, they were adopted and enacted by the next century's Progressives. At the time, though, the populist impulse was feared by many as the undoing of America. Its often eloquent leaders were loud, aggressive and rabble-rousing; yet with economic recovery, they and their "grassroots" movement vanished as suddenly as they had appeared.
Such is the promise of historical perspective with respect to the shockingly vulgar Tea Party, offered this morning in the Times' "Room for Debate" by political historians Alan Brinkley and Robert Dallek. Writes the former: "[B]ad economic times always leads to unusual politics: popular movements, angry at whatever centers of power people blame for their problems, turn to scapegoats (immigrants, radicals and other unpopular groups)." Writes Dallek: "While Tea Party candidates seem poised to win some national, state and local elections, they are unlikely, if history is any guide, to be more than a passing phenomenon.... [O]ne can well imagine that as the economy improves, the protests will subside and the Tea Party will be remembered not as an enduring part of American political culture but as a summer storm that left a small mark on the country’s political history."
There is one immense, modern divergence, however, as noted by Brinkley: "What’s different today, I think, is the way in which once marginal ideas and movements have become enormously well known through modern communications. People angry and disaffected used to have nowhere to go. Now they can join with millions of others to create something very much like a movement through the Internet and other new forms of communication."
I endorse Brinkley's worry, which is undeniably legitimate: today we've the scum of wild Internet rumors, Fox News' 24/7 malicious propaganda, the scurrilous venom of radio's Limbaughs and Becks, as well as the "news"-consuming public's devaluation of old-school print journalism; all of them paradoxically compounded, in my view, by MSNBC's and progressive Web sites' relentless fearmongering of the radical right as the coming and permanent majority.
On the other hand, prior to all our modern communications outlets, Populism's message of authentically loony economic remedies also swept through, especially, the American South and the Plains states. Lunacy always seems to find a way.
In general, the Brinkley-Dallek thesis of cautious historical perspective holds. The watchwords are "Don't panic"; tea parties in times of economic distress have always been with us. Their presence and influence are painful -- about that, there's no doubt -- but in a representative democracy, crazy gets a vote, too.