February marked the fifth anniversary of the reemergence of the label "Tea Party" in American politics. It was in February 2009 that Rick Santelli delivered his famous rant on CNBC, and a few days later, a group calling itself the Tea Party Patriots was organized.
Today the conventional wisdom is that the Tea Party movement is exhausted. Polls are cited showing that only one quarter of Americans express approval of the Tea Party. Democrats run ads claiming their opponents are Tea Party radicals.
Many Republicans argue that Tea Party candidates have lost winnable Senate races, cementing the Democratic majority there rather than overturning it.
There is something to these lines of attack, but it misses a larger picture.
I have likened the contemporary Tea Party movement to the peace movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Both began as critics of the more like-minded party: Peaceniks excoriated Lyndon Johnson; the Tea Party decried George W. Bush. Both targeted politicians of both parties.
But both groups soon became mono-partisan, working within one major party. The peace groups secured the Democratic presidential nomination for George McGovern in 1972 and, more successfully, generated support for the young liberals who swept to control in the congressional elections of 1974.
The peace movement permanently changed the character of the Democratic Party. For half a century, starting in 1917, Democrats were the party more inclined to support military interventions. In the almost half-century since then, Democrats have been consistently the more dovish party.
The Tea Party movement has had a similar effect on the Republican Party so far. We shall see if it proves as permanent.
Like the peace movement, the Tea Party movement brought hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people into political activity, people with strong convictions, not on peripheral, but on fundamental issues of public policy. They supplied energy and enthusiasm plainly lacking in the Democratic Party in 1969 and the Republican Party in 2009.
Such surges into politics will bring in many wackos, weirdos and wannabes. But they also include many solid citizens and some with finely honed political instincts.
Both movements supported primary challengers against contrary-minded incumbents or favorites of party insiders. Some of those challengers -- most notably Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware -- then lost winnable general election races.
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