Curtis Wilkie’s AUG. 12, 2014 NYT column entitled, The South’s Lesson for the Tea Party provides a lesson for all of us. History is the lesson.
Wilkie examines the rise and strength of the Tea Party in the south which many of us simply see as a 21st century event provoked by the Koch brothers and anti Obama sentiment. He depicts it, as I do, as another cycle of “nativism and populism” that reared its head early and mid 20th century just as education reform did in the same time periods with various versions of Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management.
He asks, “Will [southerners] remember their history well enough to reject the siren song of nativism and populism that has won over the region so often before?”
He adds that in the early and mid 20th century, “grassroots” leaders like “Thomas E. Watson of Georgia, “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman of South Carolina … and Theodore G. Bilbo of Mississippi rose as a result of a revolt against big business and government corruption.” George C. Wallace of Alabama “portrayed himself as a tribune of the working class while championing segregation.”
“It’s hard not to hear echoes of those eras today. Tea Party candidates have targeted federal taxes and spending…. Racism has been replaced with nativism in their demands for immigration restrictions, but the animosity toward the “other” is the same.”
How familiar is this refrain from two books about the South written 73 and 63 years ago?
Populists of the region in 1941 felt “the rage and frustration of men intolerably oppressed by conditions which they did not understand and which they could not control.” And in 1951, they felt “forgotten” and singled out by “an enemy class” of Wall Street speculators and railroad owners backed by big government.
According to Wilkie, education was also closely associated and attacked in the early and mid 20th century. Funds for poor, segregated schools were withheld and “nonbelievers were pressured to leave college faculties. During the 50s and 60s, southern governors such as Orval Faubus of Arkansas, Ross Barnett of Mississippi, and George C. Wallace of Alabama, “citing “states’ rights,” threatened to shut schools rather than integrate and denounced federal aid to education as a sinister investment.”
Today all over the south and elsewhere we hear that same set of ideas in “Tea Party criticisms of the federal government, of federal aid to education and of the ‘establishment.’”
What can we learn from all this history?
First, these ideas die hard.
Second, It took a loud progressive public sentiment to affect change.
And third, it took leadership from a former conservative and anti-Japanese Supreme Court Chief Justice from California (Earl Warren), a President from the deep south of Texas (LBJ), and a free press not beholding to the powers that be to react to what was going on and change things, at least temporarily.
Who can we turn to now?