Waves of public discontent are older than the republic. The original tea party, after all, kicked off the American Revolution. Typically, populism has been a left-wing phenomenon; it erupted in the 1880s as a movement led by farmers unhappy about grain prices and the gold standard.
It's not just economic conditions that lead to populist revolts. "A sense that people in power – the political elite, governing classes – are not responding to the most obvious problems that Americans face" is another factor, says Michael Kazin, a historian at Georgetown University.
In its most recent iterations, populism has risen from the right. According to historian Bruce Schulman of Boston University, the antitax revolt of the late 1970s and early '80s represents the immediate progenitor of the tea party movement.
More than half the states passed some kind of tax limitation or spending- cut initiative during that period – most famously, Proposition 13 in California and Proposition 2-1/2 in Massachusetts. Like the tea party movement, the tax revolt remained a state-centered phenomenon and resisted becoming a national political party or a personality-dominated movement.
The tea party phenomenon, unlike the personality-driven Perot movement, remains diffuse, and leaders insist that it can succeed only by maintaining local autonomy. Last month in South Carolina, local tea party groups merged with the state Republican Party – aimed at sharing resources and coordinating messaging – but within days, the union was fraying.
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