Tea Baggers and “Populist Anger”

I wish the media would quit saying “populist anger” is fueling the Tea Bagger movement. It’s giving the real Populists a bad name.

The Tea Baggers are on the side of millionaires. The Populists of the 1890s weren’t.

I teach history, but I used to be a reporter. Good reporters dig deep when they write stories. They even read history books.

Granted, there are some similarities between Tea Baggers and Populists. Tea Baggers are anti-government. So were Populists. Most Tea Baggers aren’t rich. Neither were most Populists.

But the Tea Bagger movement and Populism are fundamentally different.

Tea Baggers want government to step aside and let the “free market” prevail. Millionaires love it.

Most Populists were poor farmers and laborers victimized by America’s new industrial order. They wanted government to step in and safeguard ordinary citizens against the union-busting millionaires who, thanks to the “free market,” had gotten rich by impoverishing those who toiled in mines and mills or tilled the soil.

The Populists called millionaires “Robber Barons.” Tea Baggers would probably call Populists “socialists.” “Socialist” is, of course, the Tea Baggers’ big-time slam.

A lot of Populists didn’t consider “socialist” a slur. Many of them became socialists after their movement died.

Populists roundly denounced millionaires like John D. Rockefeller and the politicians – Republicans and Democrats – they paid handsomely to keep unions and government regulations off the back of big business.

In 1892, the Populists got so mad that they started their own party, officially the People’s Party. They didn’t pull punches in the preamble to their party constitution: “The fruits of the toil of millions are badly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.”

The Tea Baggers, like millionaires, rail against “big government.” At their rallies Tea Baggers wave signs urging the “SOCIALIST OBAMA” to “LET THE FREE MARKET WORK,” demanding that “LEFTIST PARASITES” carry their “OWN WEIGHT!!!” and mourning the death of “CAPITOLISM [sic].”

A lot of Republicans love the Tea Baggers, too. The GOP, many millionaires, and Tea Baggers have made common cause against health care reform.

The Tea Baggers have bought into Social Darwinism, the 19th century gospel of the rich and powerful that extolled the “free market” as almost divinely inspired. “God gave me my money,” Rockefeller said.

Social Darwinists said if you’re poor and powerless, it’s your own fault. Some Tea Baggers feel that way about health care. “YOUR HEALTH YOUR PROBLEM,” said another sign at a Tea Bagger rally.

Rockefeller hated the Populists. So would the Tea Baggers.

“We believe that the power of government—in other words, of the people—should be expanded (as in the case of the postal service) as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teaching of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land,” the Populist platform also said.

“We have witnessed for more than a quarter of a century the struggles of the two great political parties for power and plunder, while grievous wrongs have been inflicted upon the suffering people. We charge that the controlling influences dominating both these parties have permitted the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to prevent or restrain them.”

No doubt, Rockefeller and the other high rollers of the 1890s would have helped bankroll the Tea Bagger movement as some millionaires are doing today.

Of course, the Robber Barons wouldn’t have invited the “impeach Obama and his socialist comrades in Congress” crowd to dinner or a round of golf at the country club. I doubt many big bucks backers of the Tea Bagger movement hobnob with actual Tea Baggers.

Anyway, the Robber Barons would have found the Tea Baggers useful working-class foils for the Populists. The millionaires and well-heeled Democratic and Republican pols were scared the Populists, who were strongest in the Southern and Western farm states, would somehow unite all poor people of all races at the ballot box.

The Populist Party collapsed about the time of the Spanish-American War of 1898. “…Where a threatening mass movement developed, the two-party system stood ready to send out one of its columns to surround that movement and drain it of vitality,” Howard Zinn wrote in A People’s History of the United States. “And always, as a way of drowning class resentment in a flood of slogans for national unity, there was patriotism.”

At the same time, white supremacist Dixie Democrats split the Populist’s powerful Southern wing by playing the race card. Democratic legislatures in the old Confederate states passed laws making African Americans second class citizens by denying them the vote and segregating them from whites.

Not coincidentally, not to me anyway, almost every Tea Bagger is white. Pointedly racist signs are not uncommon at their rallies.

But the powers-that-be have always been good at dividing working folks against each other. When Yankee railroad tycoon Jay Gould employed strikebreakers – unions call them “scabs” — he boasted, “I can hire half of the working class to kill the other half.” (I read that one blogger called the Tea Baggers “corporate scabs and the enemy of the working class.”)

Anyway, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka knows history. “For corporate America, dividing workers wasn’t simply a tactic; it was fundamental to its success,” he said.

Meanwhile, some people – “liberal elitists” to the Tea Baggers and their Republican friends — see a ton of irony in the Tea Bagger movement. Joseph Palermo does.

He teaches history at California State University-Sacramento. Last spring, the prof turned Huffington Post reporter surfaced at a Tea Bagger rally in Sacramento.

Palermo wrote that he heard speakers bash unions and the Employee Free Choice Act, even though “most of the people in the crowd were clearly working class.”

His article, republished on the LA Progressive, concluded: “…Therein lies the beauty of the whole Tea Bag movement. Affluent people like [ultra-conservative commentator, blogger and writer] Michelle Malkin and [far-right-wing economist] Grover Norquist and the army of radio ‘personalities’ convince working people, most of whom have a relative or are themselves on Medicare or Social Security, to denounce taxes on affluent people. Many of the people at the rally were from the eastern foothill communities that are pretty impoverished and would benefit from Obama’s health care, economic, and education policies. The foreclosure rate alone east of Sacramento would lead one to think that far more people in this region could use some government help.”

Anyway, John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould would have been crazy about the Tea Baggers, too.

Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 6101, the recording secretary for the Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO, and the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo. He is a native of Mayfield, Ky., where he lives with his wife of 31 years and their teenage son


  1. j davis says

    What the hell is wrong with you people. The health care bill requires people to purchase insurance from private insurance companies. How is that ‘socialism.’ You people call anyone who disagrees with your ridiculous social Darwinist ‘philosophy’ a Nazi, Communist or Socialist. The Obama administration sold all of us out to the insurance and drug companies. It is very telling that the senator 9Baucus) who killed the public option has two former staffers who work for Wellpoint –you know the company that was just caught canceling the policies of women with breast st cancer. How is that ‘socialism?? Now go back to reading Ayn Rand and fondling yourselves!!

  2. pablo diablo says

    no elaine you need to quit with the dumbass rightwing b.s.talking points speak!where the hell were your complaints when bush cut taxes for the rich during a time of two wars?one of which he falsified intellegence reports to start. think about that!how many have died and been maimed so his war profiteer buddies and corporations could get richer than god?your comments are typical stupid glenn beck or rush limbaugh or fox news propaganda.frankly to see your right wing b.s. propaganda in print is embarrasing to america.you conservatives always talk about the evils of big government but when your party the ‘repugs’ are in power the government is NEVER smaller… .. i hate to break it to you but your party created this whole mess!you idiot right wingers never seem to grasp this fact. many other nations in the world have socialized medicine.this is a fact.why is it that these nations don,t want to emmulate our system?ask yourself that.one reason for mr.obama appologizing might just be 90% of the foolish foriegn policy bush/cheney practiced!

  3. Elaine says

    Anyone that wants big government to take over their lives & let this so called health care bill which is nothing but rationed, socialized,government run health care is un American. A politician from Canada is coming to the USA for surgery & is making no excuses for it. They have that same health care plan. The guy in Parliament that came to the US & appeared on several TV shows warning us not to go down the path of rationed, socialized, government run health care as they did because of the problems they are having now with the program & all the people that needs doctors cannot get to them in time leaving so many of them just to die. They have raised their taxes & done so many things trying to improve the health care & it is so out of control he does not know what is going to happen. You are one of those liberal elite people that think Big Government is the answer to everything. You need to move to Canada or the UK if you like the European life style so much. Our ancestors came here to get away from the Europeans, wrote the Constitution, & Obama does not go by the Constitution he is too intent on Big Government in every aspect of our lives. The Tea baggers do not want Big Government, do not want rationed, socialized, government run health care. The 85% of people that have their own health insurance like it. Do not want the government touching it, or adding taxes to it, but if Obamacare gets passed we will all be forced into his insurance in which will cost us more money for less coverage & people up in age who they deem it will cost too much to save their lives as they are already old, just to send them home with pain pills. Now I heard Obama say something to that effect in one of his many TV appearances last year. I am for capitalism, free trade, protect the borders, send illegals back home, small business & completely against unions which I feel caused the downfall of the auto companies, or at least partially. Say what you want, but I love my freedom that I feel is being taking from me. Small business cannot afford more taxes, or to furnish health care for employees. Health care is not a right but a choice. If they want competition let us shop across state lines. Obama has divided the country now in such a way I do not know if we will ever be the same. The majority of Americans believe that if he stops borrowing money & spending money & get what we owed payed back, get out of our lives & let us do what we do best & that is creating jobs with small businesses without the fear of over taxation & health care we can get back on our feet. But if he continues on borrowing money (especially the communist countries) & spending it like a drunken sailor we are going to be a Banana Republic or even worse a third world country. You hear Chavez asking him come on over to socialism & join us. This man has embarrassed us by apologizing for us for nothing. That shows you right there that he does not like America nor is he proud of America. I wish he would just step down & take his family & move to a European country & leave us alone.

  4. insaneredneck says

    Hi Mike and Hugo, You guys must be rich repug trolls or dumb as dirt teabaggers. You two sound like the kind of people who would gladly work an 18 hour day for a bowl of beans and a cot as long as no rich person was inconvenienced by taxes or regulation of the “free Market”.It is morons like you that are going to turn this country into a third world hell hole.Just mean ,selfish, greedy know nothings.

  5. Hugo Sanchez says

    Basically, Progressives, and this writer-Barry Craig- seems to be one,believe that they know more because of their college education/better social status/political office.
    Since they know MORE, they feel entitled to tell the rest of us Americans how to think,vote, and live.

    In a real sense, the Progressive are advocating an OLIGARCHY in America, where only the college educated elite and the politically well connected like the Hollywood tycoons will DECIDE our collective political future. No Tea-Baggers or dissidents allowed! Hopefully, there will be no CHE, to take us out and shoot us down against a wall.

    Pardon my knowledge, i am from the socialist republic of California. If this state is to remain Golden, we will be electing a lot of new faces to the Legislature, Congress and Senate this year.

  6. Mike says

    “Populism” is but a hair removed from National Socialism. It may be an ugly point for a granola-muncher such as yourself to concede, but it’s true! Do some more diggin’ there Mr. Ex-Reporter!


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