From a Canadian perspective, there is something alarming in the power of the Tea Party to influence U.S. politics and its very troubled economy. There is no doubt that U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner would have reached a compromise much sooner in the recent debt-ceiling crisis, if not for the stubborn resolve of the 60 Tea Party Republican members of the House. Their absolute refusal to accept any (arguably necessary) tax hikes along with their demand to slash government spending ultimately forced Boehner and with him Obama into a tight corner. Neither leader emerged from this debacle unscathed.
As unique as the Tea Party might seem -- and another real test of its power will be seen in the 2012 presidential election -- it follows in the footsteps of many other populist movements dating back to the mid-19th century. Its members' call for less government, their abiding belief that they represent the true "will of the people," and their generally conservative outlook on everything from U.S. foreign policy to gay marriage have been echoed throughout American history.
At various times, populists in the U.S., according to Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University, "voiced a profound outrage with elites who ignored, corrupted and/or betrayed the core ideal of American democracy: rule by the common people who expected their fellow citizens to advance by diligence, practical intelligence and a faith in God."
What has given Tea Partiers their real clout is they smartly opted not to form a third political party with little chance of success. Instead, they have attempted to wrest control of the Republican party from its more moderate supporters. That, too, has historical precedent.
In the 1890s, the short-lived People's Party, which gave voice to the demands of southern and midwestern farmers, sought to limit the control of eastern banks and railways (just as western Canadian farmers later did). The People's Party's leaders chose to work through the Democratic party and were able to play a key role in the selection of William Jennings Bryan as the Democratic presidential candidate in the 1896 election. Bryan, who was later to fight the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution as the prosecutor in the 1925 Scopes trial in Tennessee, lost that election to Republican William McKinley, as he did again in 1900.
There have been left-wing populist movements led by labour and socialist leaders of the Progressive era before and after the First World War, as well as the student anti-Vietnam War protestors of the 1960s.
But as with the Tea Party, populism has been more identified with the moralists of the God-fearing right -- from the "Radio Messiah" Father Charles Coughlin, who spread his narrow definition of morality during the 1930s, to Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority of the '80s -- who have mobilized their forces as the U.S. has embraced liberal and modern changes. The result, like now, has been bitter and emotional clashes over the direction of the country's social and economic policies.
The fight against liquor during the late 19th and early 20th centuries perhaps best epitomizes how populists have been able to shape American society. The passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1918 that instituted Prohibition was the culmination of decades of campaigning by the "dry" forces, who equated alcohol as the greatest evil to inflict mankind. Reformers and temperance societies, many of whom were women, gathered regularly to pray for the sins of their fellow men and promote the virtues of a life of "industry, sobriety and thrift."
Over time, the anti-liquor crusade spread beyond women and Protestant ministers. The influential Anti-Saloon League, for example, which led the fight for prohibition, was a non-partisan group of bankers, businessmen and merchants who saw in alcohol abuse and public drinking the death of America. By 1917, 26 of 48 states had some form of prohibition in place, though in the big urban centres, it was not popular.
That did not stop a small group of politicians in Washington, influenced by the lobbying efforts of the Anti-Saloon League, from successfully pushing for a prohibition amendment that was passed in January 1918. Within a year, 45 states, more than the required three-quarters of the states necessary under the Constitution, had voted in support of the amendment. In May 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act (named after one of its authors, Republican Congressman Andrew Volstead of Minnesota) to enforce the amendment. President Woodrow Wilson, then suffering from a stroke, and no fan of the temperance movement, vetoed the act, yet Congress overrode his veto with a two-thirds vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Prohibition took effect in the U.S. on Jan. 6, 1920.
As has been well-documented, Prohibition, the "noble experiment," as it was called, was an abject failure. It did not cure poverty, halt crime, or change the drinking habits of Americans. (During his term in office, from 1920 to 1923, President Warren Harding and the members of his cabinet always had easy access to liquor.) On the contrary, until its repeal in 1933, Prohibition gave organized crime and such gangsters as Al Capone and Meyer Lansky an opportunity to make millions of dollars by bringing in whisky from Canada, Mexico and elsewhere. And it encouraged thousands, if not millions, of Americans to break a law they could not abide by.
Comparisons between the Prohibitionists and the Tea Partiers are not straightforward, yet both shared the same insularity and unwillingness in the face of common sense to bend their principles.
The lesson of the past for the American politics of the future is this: Vocal minorities, motivated by a zealous religious and moral conviction, can impose dramatic changes on a majority -- and an idealistic president -- that believes reason and compromise will conquer all.
Now and Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine brings a historical perspective to the major events of today.