On April 15, 2009, as the first nationwide wave of Tea Party protests broke out, I wrote: “What’s most striking about the tea-party movement is that most of the organizers haven’t ever organized, or even participated, in a protest rally before. General disgust has drawn a lot of people off the sidelines and into the political arena, and they are already planning for political action after today....
“This influx of new energy and new talent is likely to inject new life into small-government politics around the nation. The mainstream Republican Party still seems limp and disorganized. This grassroots effort may revitalize it. Or the tea-party movement may lead to a new third party that may replace the GOP, just as the GOP replaced the fractured and hapless Whigs."
Fast-forward to the present, and the Tea Party movement -- which didn’t really exist until about the time I wrote those words -- is now the single most powerful political force in the nation.
Democratic and Republican politicians alike fear it, and increasing numbers of Americans (including, in recent months, increasing numbers of African-Americans according to a PJTV Tea Party tracking poll) identify with the Tea Party movement and say they are more likely to vote for candidates it supports, and less likely to vote for candidates it opposes.
Even old-line lefties like Stanley Fish are warning Democrats (and Establishment Republicans) that their open contempt for the Tea Party movement is not only blinding them to what’s really going on, but also empowering the movement itself. Fish writes that “The Tea Party’s strength comes from the down-to-earth rhetoric it responds to and proclaims, and whenever high-brow critics heap the dirt of scorn and derision upon the party, its powers increase.”
He’s right, though he’s wrong to think that the Tea Party movement would necessarily do worse if our cultural leaders opened the doors to rational debate: Many Tea Party thinkers are quite knowledgeable and well-informed, while the intellectual leadership of today’s political establishment, in either party, is not exactly first-rate.
If that leadership had been first rate, it would have spotted this phenomenon, or headed it off, a long time ago. Or, you know, not driven us into near-bankruptcy.
Despite my pleasure in saying “I told you so,” I don’t deserve all that much credit. It was easy to see this coming if you paid attention.
Both political parties are out of touch, and ordinary Americans are very unhappy about it, as they watch the Treasury being looted, the economy sink, and the political, journalistic, and financial ruling-class figures escaping the consequences of their ham-handed and self-serving actions.
But while ordinary Americans are mad as hell, this time they really don’t have to take it any more. Institutions have failed them, but Internet tools like blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, and personal tools -- like the cheap handheld video cameras that beat back bogus charges of Tea Party racism again and again -- mean that they don’t have to rely on failing institutions.
As I predicted in my book, “An Army of Davids,” ordinary people have been able to self-organize, to take on big institutions who would rather not listen to them, and win.
For now, Republicans are (sort of) the beneficiaries. Though Tea Partiers aren’t happy with the GOP, they’re much less happy with the Democrats. In this election cycle, Republicans will benefit. But Tea Partiers are also taking over the GOP from the bottom up, running for precinct chairs and state committee seats.
This makes sense: There are barriers to entry for third parties, and it makes more sense to take over an existing party than to start from scratch, if that’s possible.
But those establishment GOP figures who think that they’ll cruise to victory and a return to the pocket-stuffing business-as-usual that marked the prior GOP majority need to think again. This election cycle is, in a very real sense, a last chance for the Republicans. If they blow it, we’re likely to see third-party challenges in 2012, not only at the Presidential level but in numerous Congressional races as well.
For the national GOP, it’s do-or-die time. So guys, you’d better perform -- unless you want me to be writing another “I told you so” column in 2013. And trust me, you don’t.