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.
I think it unfair for the media or the left to characterize this movement as "Republican." The fact that GOP politicians are seeking to hijack the movement for their own purposes should tell you that they themselves feel the separation and are drooling over the prospect of tapping the enthusiasm, the anger, and the commitment of the protestors for electoral gain.
It is definitely an opposition movement, however. Certainly there is mass unhappiness with President Obama and his policies. And there is opposition to the Democrats in Congress. But does this really translate into electoral strength for Republicans? I am going to go out on a limb and say no. The anger here is a reaction (reactionary?) against a growing government, higher taxes, and the sense that the country that they grew up in is slipping away right before their eyes.
This is all fed, of course, by the pop conservatives on talk radio who have ginned up outrage against Obama and the Democrats. I say "ginned up" because what the president and his party have already done doesn't need the added fear mongering being promoted by Beck, Hannity, Rush, and Savage in order for conservatives to rally. Raised taxes, cap and trade, health care reform, bailouts and takeovers, and other liberal agenda items should be sufficient to outrage anyone on the right and motivate them to protest these horrific policies. It is unnecessary to brand Obama a "communist" or even a "socialist" to realize that his policies spell disaster for individual liberty and the free market economy.
Getting caught up trying to guess the number of attendees at Saturday's protests (as I and many others are doing today and will continue to do) is irrelevant. This is history in the making, something the United States has never seen: a genuine grass-roots conservative mass movement, activated by the new technologies, communicating effectively using the new software and hardware -- and it is growing.
Could it morph into a new party? Not likely given the institutional roadblocks placed in any new political party's way by the Republicans and Democrats. And the moment it is co-opted by the Republicans, I predict a lot of steam will go out of it.
But for the moment, it is a force in American politics unto itself. And this is a remarkable and historical achievement for the right no matter how you slice it.