Tea Party: A State Of Mind

NPR Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr gives his thoughts on the Tea Party movement, and the role the loosely organized group might play in the midterm elections.

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DANIEL SCHORR: I haven't commented much about the Tea Party phenomenon in American politics because, frankly, I wasn't sure I understood it.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

NPR's senior news analyst Daniel Schorr.

SCHORR: In the history of American populist movements, the current Tea Party craze does not fit in very easily. Populist movements have tended to coalesce around charismatic leaders more than programs. Thus, William Jennings Bryan and the cross of gold. George Wallace and resistance to integration. Huey Long of Louisiana, promising monthly stipends for the forgotten man. And Senator Joseph McCarthy and the communist menace. And Ross Perot and the menace of the national debt.

All of these stirred up some excitement for a while but didn't wind up changing very much. The Tea Party has no compelling leader. It sprang into being with a burst of disillusionment with government. It has given warm receptions to those who share its contempt for the political process. It has given a claim to a variety of anti-politicians like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Glenn Beck of Fox News.

But the Tea Party remains more a state of mind than any rallying around some single leader and program. In recent days, the Tea Party movement has been put under the microscope by a variety of pollsters. From their reports we learned that the Tea Party adherents are predominantly white, they're over 45 and they're well educated. They are more concerned with frivolous lawsuits than with same-sex marriages.

Abortion does not seem to be a leading issue among them. They are, on a whole, better off than the average economically. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post writes about populism of the privileged. And so the question on millions of tongues: What will be the impact of the Tea Party movement on the midterm election and on the presidential election?

Without a settled leader and the makings of a program, perhaps less that would appear from the splash the Tea Partiers have been making. In history, Americans have sometimes given their heart to fast-talking populists but usually not for long.

This is Daniel Schorr.

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