Debate Over Tea Party Protest Numbers Masks the Real History Made

It is a truism that protests in American history have been pretty much the province of the left. This shouldn't surprise anyone, since most protests -- especially in the 20th century -- were to support the liberals' idea of "progress" and the advancement of civil rights for blacks, women, Hispanics, gays, and other minorities.

Mass protest movements including civil rights, labor, anti-war, and others were organized and promoted from the left or far left. Nothing wrong with this, considering that that for which liberals were agitating was as all-American as apple pie. The struggle for equality continues today with varying degrees of rationality and justification. But no one denies we're a better country because of these mostly non-violent, sometimes non-partisan protests.

The last time an identifiably conservative protest movement emerged was at the turn of the last century with some of the populist movements. William Jennings Bryan thought to ride his "prairie populism" all the way to the White House, delivering one of the most inspirational convention speeches in American history ("[W]e shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.") His rhetoric got him the 1896 Democratic nomination, but he lost big to McKinley in the general election. Significantly, Bryan swept the south, the lower Midwest, and the Mountain West.

But it is hard to say that Bryan's movement was very broad or deep. The emerging middle class rejected his weird ideas on species decisively, fearing (quite rightly) that his switch to a "free silver" standard from the gold standard would be ruinously inflationary. True, inflated dollars would have wiped out the indebtedness of farmers. But wage earners would have been destroyed. Hence, the Populist Party and other reactions to the nearly 30 year hegemony of the GOP at that point failed to unite effectively to qualify as a true ideological movement.

Prior to that, one might choose to interpret the Whiskey Rebellion as a "conservative" populist movement in that it was a reaction to what was seen as the heavy hand of government imposing a tax on whiskey (which was the only way poor farmers on the nearly roadless frontier could transport their crops, having turned their grain into whiskey for that purpose). But this was a very small movement and quickly disbanded by President Washington's show of force.

What makes Saturday's massive turnout around the country so significant is that it is the first truly conservative mass movement in American history. The amorphousness of conservatism until the 1950s probably had something to do with that. Conservatism prior to then was rather clubby and its "leaders" had very little interest in developing a mass movement like labor, socialists, or communists were attempting to do. Even the candidacies of Goldwater and Reagan were more party-oriented than ideological in nature, although there is little doubt that conservative activists learned how to organize an effective movement by being involved in both those races.