GUY RAZ, host:
Now, back in 1996, Ross Perot founded the Reform Party. That movement was victorious in just one election. Its candidate for governor of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura, won in 1998. But since then, the Reform Party's lost much of its steam.
Pat Choate, an economist by training, was tapped to be Ross Perot's running mate on the Reform Party's presidential ticket in 1996. We called him up to get his take on the Tea Party phenomenon.
Pat Choate, welcome to the program.
Mr. PAT CHOATE (Economist): Good being with you.
RAZ: Do you see any similarities between the Reform Party that was founded by Ross Perot and the Tea Party today?
Mr. CHOATE: There's some. But there's some distinct differences. The Reform Party was formed at a point in time really when we were in a recession and Ross Perot stepped up and talked about some rather basic issues. The difference with the Tea Party is it's been heavily pushed by a bunch of talk show conservatives. You have the Republican Party attempting to use this as a means to pull independents or conservative independents to their policies, to their agenda.
RAZ: And what about the similarities?
Mr. CHOATE: Similarities are you have people concerned about the federal budget deficit, about trade, about jobs. They're dissatisfied with the two-party system and the current leadership.
RAZ: Do you see the Tea Party in any way as a kind of an heir to Ross Perot's Reform Party?
Mr. CHOATE: Not really. I see it as a new movement in a sense. I mean this is not uncommon to have this when people are dissatisfied. Basically, third-party movements are issue-driven. They can bring major issues to the attention of the established party. In many cases, they'll be personality-driven as with Teddy Roosevelt or La Follette or with Perot. People find someone who connects with them that expresses their dissatisfaction and they give them support. There's no personality - a single personality in the Tea Party movement, which makes it very difficult to do a rallying of the members other than their dissatisfaction with the government.
RAZ: The Reform Party hasn't really been a significant force in American politics since it helped elect Jesse Ventura as its candidate for governor of Minnesota in 1998. Do you see a different fate for the Tea Party movement? I mean do you think that this movement may have a longer lifespan?
Mr. CHOATE: I think the two major parties will adapt. I think the Tea Party may continue to be a positive force in politics through 2010 and through 2012. But if the system works, as it usually does, the two major parties will steal their ideas and positions are changed. And that'll take away the reason for being for a Tea Party.
RAZ: Pat Choate was the Reform Party's vice presidential nominee in 1996. Together with Ross Perot, they won nine percent of the vote that year.
Pat Choate, thank you very much.
Mr. CHOATE: Thank you very much. Enjoy being with you.
RAZ: As Pat Choate said, political populism is nothing new in American history. And if history is any guide, third parties don't do very well in our political system. But as Georgetown University history professor Michael Kazin told me, they do almost always have an impact.
Professor MICHAEL KAZIN (History, Georgetown University): Whenever you have an economic crisis, as we've been having for the last year and more, there's a lot of fear out there, a lot of sense that the government should be doing something for people. And if the perception that the government is not doing enough for people, or people are afraid of what the government is trying to do for people, then you often have a populist upsurge. You saw this during the 1930s. You saw it to some degree in the late 1970s when the economy was going bad and you see it now as well.
RAZ: Do you see the Tea Party in the tradition of other populist movements?
Prof. KAZIN: In the sense that it's the people in the Tea Party movement see themselves as the ordinary people against the entrenched elites, yes, that's really what populism means in the American context. It's the virtuous common people against the immoral elites. However, it's clearly a conservative kind of populism. It's anti-government, it's anti-tax, it's anti-deficit. And so in this sense the idea of the Tea Party movement are not really new at all. They're conservative economic ideas that have been very powerful since the 1950s and '60s.
RAZ: I'm curious, given that government spending reached such a high level under the Bush administration, that deficits were enormous. Why didn't this movement emerge then?
Prof. KAZIN: Well, because I think they are conservatives.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. KAZIN: I think they're people who are basically Republicans in the Tea Party movement who were unhappy with George W. Bush but didn't want to help the Democrats either, because they always thought the Democrats would be worse.
RAZ: We often hear about how voters are tired of the two-party system and yet there hasn't really been a successful kind of populist third party movement in the United States since the beginning of the 20th century, right?
Prof. KAZIN: No, there never has been a successful third party movement in the United States. So what you usually see with independent populist movements is what you're seeing now with the Tea Party movement, that is they talk about not being part of either party. But in the end, most populist movements do funnel their rage and their activism into one of the two parties.
RAZ: Has populism in recent American history been more associated with the right rather than with the left, as it sounds like it was early on?
Prof. KAZIN: I think it's that populist movements were mostly on the left until 1940s and '50s. They were mostly people who were angry about the economic conditions of the country, who believed that actually government should become more powerful, in order to be a countervailing power against the power of big business. And it really is not until 1950s, 1960s that you see a really major populist movement on the right.
Historically, conservatives have not really been in favor of mass movements.
Prof. KAZIN: That's a fairly recent phenomenon in history.
RAZ: Does history suggest that the main political parties adjust their tone, their message based on these populist movements and what comes out of them?
Prof. KAZIN: They very often do because the people in these movements are energetic; they commit their time and their hopes to politics in a way most Americans do not do. And so they do try to bring in those people. That happened with the Democrats in the 1890s; William Jennings Bryan would not have come close to being elected president without the energy of populists.
Happened in the 1930s when Franklin D. Roosevelt, especially in 1936, was able to win a huge landslide over the Republicans, in part, because he got support of this insurgent labor movement, which had not been a Democratic constituency necessarily before.
So this is one of the perennial themes, I think, in American politics, that social movements generate a lot of power, politicians are successful or not successful in corralling that power to their ends, and they change the country in so doing.
RAZ: Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University. His most recent book is "A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan."
Michael Kazin, thank you so much.
Prof. KAZIN: Thank you.