Jay Evensen: Tea party horse wild, unsteady, but will it last?

Published: Thursday, Aug. 4 2011 9:55 a.m. MDT

Staying atop a popular movement can be a bit like staying atop a runaway horse. Just ask a host of Republican lawmakers who found the ride over the last several days both thrilling and frightening.

The horse came darned close to the edge of the cliff, and it's not clear still whether it intends to throw some of its riders off. That's how it is with animals that seem motivated more by passion than reason.

And so, we have old hands like Sen. Orrin Hatch saying they would rather not sit on the so-called super committee that will try to tackle real cuts before the end of the year. The tea party doesn't like to make nice with others, and the committee will have to engage in a generous bit of compromise to get anything done.

It has now been 28 months since I attended the first tea party rally in Utah during a mid-April snow storm. That's not much time in human years, but it's enough in political years to make a big difference.

Back then, amid the strange costumes, colorful signs and the assortment of usual one-issue opportunists you find at any rally, I struggled to make sense of it all. The people seemed both anti-Republican and anti-Democrat, and most definitely anti-establishment.

Social movements tend to be born out of opposition to things, but that was a lot of anti to swallow in one afternoon. Since then, a few pros have emerged, such as cut, cap and balance. But much of the rest of the issues in the firmament of political discussion remain in a rather uneasy orbit around the teapots.

Is the movement for or against the Patriot Act? What about family values, the issue that was the darling of the Republican Party just a few years ago? Should government play a role in promoting a social agenda, or does the movement's libertarian bent view such a thing as improper government meddling?

The uncertainty can make sitting in the saddle on the edge of the cliff even uneasier.

Last week, the co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, Mark Meckler, told the Associated Press, "The message is that we're watching, and we want you to vote based on our core values."

The word "arrogant" comes to mind. What unelected American, after all, assumes the right to dictate to those the public has elected as representatives?

The answer is the same as it always has been in this country. The kind of American who can assemble real political power, that's who.

The United States operates as a representative democracy, but it is representative of the people who bother to get involved in the political process, which means the folks who are in charge of nominating candidates.

A century ago, the United States was caught in the throes of a similar popular movement, only it was pulling the nation to the left.

Former president Theodore Roosevelt was so disgusted with the conservative policies of his successor, William Howard Taft, that he formed the Bull Moose Party and ran again for president.

The quick version of the story is that he failed. His party hurt Taft and helped the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson. But consider the things the Bull Moose Party was demanding. These included support for a national insurance for the elderly, unemployed and disabled, a minimum wage, an eight-hour workday, farm relief, a federal income tax and campaign finance reforms.

If any of those sound familiar, it is because they eventually became law in one form or another. Ironically, many are targets of today's tea party.

History seldom repeats itself perfectly. This horse seems crazy enough to just jump off the cliff along with its riders.

Whether it survives long enough to make a mark that some other movement seeks to destroy a century hence depends on the people who get involved in the process. It depends on people who aren't afraid to temper ideology with reason. In other words, it depends on you.

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his web site, www.jayevensen.com.

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