DECEMBER 13, 2010 5:59PM

Be thankful the new 'third party' is on the right

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During an era of great economic and social strife, a loud, angry and rapidly growing segment of the U.S. electorate split from its traditional political leaders and rallied behind a young, charismatic and populist governor from a relatively obscure U.S. state. This new leader made headlines across the country for sharply criticizing career politicians, endorsing outsider candidates and championing the common man.

Those who agreed with this rising political star viewed the governor as a presidential candidate who would do nothing short of save our great nation. Those who detested the populist leader's ideas were equally as loud and went out of their way to discredit and brush aside the new movement's adherents.

The scenario I describe above is not a unique one in American history. It accurately characterizes both Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement of today and former Louisiana governor Huey Long's rise in an off-shoot of the Democratic Party in the 1930's. Substitute the word 'congressman' for 'governor' and it applies to William Jennings Bryan in the late 1800's as well.

While the political climate leading to the rise of ‘The Kingfish’ and ‘Mama Grizzly’ seem to share common roots, the political ideas driving the two movements -- both billed as the means by which everyday working folks could “take back” their country -- could not be more different.

To Long, “taking back” America meant attacking New Deal policies from the left, redistributing wealth, reigning in corporations and consolidating power in the public sector.

To Palin and the Tea Party, “taking back” America means attacking Bush-era policies from the right, slashing government spending, cutting taxes and consolidating power in the private sector.

The fact that two such vastly different political waves could emerge under supposedly similar circumstances tells me that below the surface, the circumstances aren’t really all that similar.

The recession continues to cause suffering in countless households across the country, but it bears little resemblance to the Great Depression of the 1930’s.

When Long rose to prominence in Louisiana, his state contained just 300 miles of paved roads. About 60-percent of the state’s residents lived in dire poverty with no government assistance. One in four of his state’s adults could not read and a poll tax kept 170,000 of Louisiana’s 2 million residents from registering to vote. Similar conditions plagued many states throughout the country. Long became a folk hero and presidential candidate by bullying his way toward solutions to many of those grave and widespread socio-economic ills (you could call him the pitbull sans lipstick).

Palin’s rise has occurred amid the so-called ‘Great Recession,’ during which the vast majority of Americans continue to live in relative wealth and comfort. Government assistance provides safety nets for the elderly, unemployed and hungry. Unlike the 1930’s, very few, if any, Americans face real threats of starvation. In 1932, just 11-percent of rural homes were wired with electricity. Today, one would be hard pressed to find a home anywhere in the U.S. lacking a television and other modern appliances -- no matter how underwater its mortgage might be.

Unlike Long, Palin owes her national status more to celebrity, not actual policy nor power. The Tea Party movement does not promise to fix any grave social and economic ills, mostly because few still exist -- at least not nearly to the degree that they once did.

The populist masses of the Tea Party are mostly firmly entrenched in the middle class, unlike Long’s poor adherents from eight decades ago. The Tea Partiers are angry because they fear the waning of American exceptionalism. Seventy years after the Great Depression eased and the era of American prosperity dawned, they see other countries catching up. They sense the shining American dream stuttering in idle.

While Long’s scapegoats were corporate greed, corrupt officials and the wealthy establishment media, Palin’s are the government, illegal immigrants and the liberal media.

The rise of the Tea Party and its Alaskan leader is not a new phenomenom.

That such a movement has now emerged from the political right shows how far we’ve come socially and economically over the past century.

While I don’t agree with much I hear coming from the Tea Party crowd, I’m certainly thankful to be living in an era when the popular outcry demands less -- not more -- from our government.

Things could always be better, but we’ve come a long, long way since ‘The Kingfish’s’ day.

Author tags:

economy, politics, tea party, long, palin

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