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Where's the (Tea) Party?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Talk about the wish being father to the thought. Harry Reid, leader of the now diminished Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate, once said the Tea Party was a reaction to hard times and would disappear when the economy improves.


In just how many ways is that diagnosis of the Tea Party faulty?

Just to begin with, the growth of the Tea Party on the American scene wasn't so much a reaction to the economic slump as to how the establishment -- of both parties -- dealt with it. That is, by spending more instead of less, and by expanding government power instead of just letting the Federal Reserve reorganize failing banks and stop there, as in the past.

Instead, Washington preferred to favor some investment houses (Goldman Sachs) while letting others go under (Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers) without any fair or uniform standard.

While they were at it, the feds took over whole swaths of the American economy. For prominent examples: Government Motors, the AIG deal, and the makeover/takeover of American health care, which has only begun.

Meanwhile, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the twin tumors that metastasized into the Panic of '08-09, are still around churning out debt. No wonder so many Americans reacted, and not favorably.

But economics is only part of the Tea Party's concerns. It's come to represent a whole grab bag of objections to the way things have been going in this country. If you've got a complaint, or even an underlying concern about the state of the Union, the Tea Party's got a place for you. It's one of those amorphous socio-political phenomena that appear from time to time rather than a planned development, a howl rather than a program.

Will it disappear? Probably. Eventually. Whatever the problems with Harry Reid's diagnosis of the Tea Party, his prognosis is supported by the history of other American protest movements. Having influenced the major political parties, they tend to fade away. (What ever happened to the Greenback, Free Silver and Single Tax movements, anyway?)

When it comes to the Tea Party, not even its own members seem interested in becoming a political party, let alone one of the Big Two. Good decision. That way, a popular movement doesn't have to deal with problems of party organization, party platforms or party consensus.

The Tea Party's members seem to drift in and out of its decentralized ranks depending on the next big outrage or the proximity of a rally. It's not even clear just how many folks consider themselves members of the Tea Party or just sympathizers.

But the movement does serve as a useful scapegoat for kneejerk liberals, or is it kneejerk progressives by now? Not too long ago, the Tea Party was being convicted, without benefit of trial, for the deranged attacks on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and prominent friends at Tucson.

But the Tea Party is more a random collection of dissatisfactions than any kind of conspiracy. It's hard to imagine its having come into existence if the politicians -- of either major party -- inspired much confidence. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. And the Tea Party fills one. At least with indignation.

When political parties don't respond to public discontent, more or less spontaneous political phenomena like the Tea Party will arise. No matter what they call themselves -- populists, progressives or just patriots. And no matter what the country's more sedate class calls Those People, they have earned a hearing. They have something worth saying, and even heeding. Even if it's only: Enough!

A phenomenon like the Tea Party doesn't come from nowhere, but out of an instinctive understanding of where we are, whither we are tending, and that it is time to turn around.

To think of the Tea Party as just an economic phenomenon is to demonstrate a lack of historical perspective. And a general insensibility to the current American mood. Which is what led the Democratic Party to its comeuppance in the last midterm elections.

There's a reason Nancy Pelosi is now the former speaker of the House, And why the Democratic majority in the Senate led by Harry Reid is now much slimmer. Both leaders embody the hubris and historical amnesia (the two tend to go together) that invite a rebuke from the electorate. Sure enough, the voters delivered it last November. And may do so again the next.

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