The Great American Tea Party

NEW YORK – Who were those flag-waving, cheering, hollering, singing, and praying Americans who gathered in Washington DC on the last Saturday in August at a rally to “restore the honor” of the United States? This tax-free jamboree of patriotism was ostensibly non-partisan (otherwise it could not have been tax-free). The main organizer and speaker was Glenn Beck, the right-wing populist radio and TV personality, who promised to restore not only the nation’s honor, but “American values,” too.

The other star was Sarah Palin, the darling of the populist Tea Party crowds, who began by paying her respect to Martin Luther King, Jr. For it was here, on this very same spot and date, that he gave his “I have a dream” speech in 1963. She then quickly proceeded to give a long celebratory speech about the heroism of US soldiers “fighting for freedom” abroad.

It seemed an odd – and to many offensive – transition: from King’s great plea for civil rights to Palin’s sentimental clichés about the military. But then there was something odd about the entire event, just as there is something odd about the Tea Party movement itself. This latest surge of American populism is financed by some extremely wealthy men, including a couple of oil billionaires named David and Charles Koch, who favor cutting taxes for the super-rich and abolishing government subsidies for the poor, such as Social Security and President Barack Obama’s health-care plan.

This agenda might seem selfish, though understandable from the point of view of an oil billionaire. But who are all those people wildly cheering for the billionaire’s dream, on of all days the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s speech? They are almost uniformly white, largely middle-aged and above, and for the most part far from wealthy.