NEW YORK – Ever since the first “Tea Party” convention was held last month in Nashville, Tennessee, with Sarah Palin as one of the keynote speakers, America’s political and media establishments have been reacting with a combination of apprehension and disdain. The Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, has called the Tea Party adherents Nazis, while the mainstream media tend to portray them as ignorant and provincial, a passive rabble with raw emotion but little analytical skill, stirred up and manipulated by demagogues to advance their own agendas.
To be sure, the Tea Party’s brand of aggrieved populism – and its composition of mostly white, angry, middle-class voters – has deep roots in the United States, flaring up during times of change. But observers who have drawn comparisons to the Know-Nothings, the racist, paranoid, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigrant party that surged in the 1850’s, are reading the movement far too superficially.
Indeed, those who deride and dismiss this movement do so at their peril. While some Tea Partiers may be racist or focused on eccentric themes – such as the validity of Barack Obama’s birth certificate – far more of them, those who were part of the original grass-roots effort, are focused on issues that have merit. If you actually listen to them, instead of just reading accounts transmitted through the distorting mirror of the mainstream media, you hear grievances that are profound, as well as some proposals that are actually ahead of their time.
For example, Tea Party activists, using a group called End the Fed, were among the first to focus critical attention on the unelected and unaccountable US Federal Reserve Board. Now legislation is being put forward to establish greater transparency at the Fed – surely a laudable outcome.