Michael Kazin is a busy man these days. As reporters and politicians rush to catch up on the Tea Party movement, Kazin, a historian at Georgetown University specializing in American populist movements, has found himself in high demand. "I've got another reporter on the line, can I call you right back?" he could be overheard saying into his cell phone during a recent interview with NationalJournal.com. "It's populism week right now!"
Kazin, who moonlights as co-editor of the left-leaning Dissent magazine, has spent much of his career studying the development of American social movements. He has written extensively about the history of American populism from the short-lived People's Party of the late 19th century to the "Republican revolution" of the mid-'90s, and sees the Tea Partiers in that mold -- with some differences.
"Obviously, history does not repeat itself," Kazin said. "So there are parallels with other populist movements, but like any movement in history, what's new about it is more interesting in some ways than what's old."
One difference Kazin sees in the movement is its focus on the "libertarian economics" leg of the conservative stool, bypassing "so-called traditional social values and a strong military." Tea Party leaders have sought to play down differences over social issues such as abortion and gay rights in order to focus on the mantras of fiscal discipline and small government.
"Most American political scientists used to argue at least that the libertarian side of conservatism did not have as much of a mass base as the strong military and social values side," he said. "It was mostly Cato Foundation types and intellectuals who read [Friedrich] Hayek and people like that. This Tea Party movement seems to show that that's not really true."
Another difference? Tea Party activists' use of technology -- deeply indebted to the model established by MoveOn.org and the Obama campaign -- which suggests that future populist movements will need shorter and shorter gestation periods before they emerge and begin flexing their muscle. "In the past, social movements started happening locally and people linked up between local areas," Kazin said. "And now, of course, one doesn't need to communicate with people face-to-face."
While online tools may give activists the means to link up and voice their grievances faster, Kazin speculated that it could also make their efforts more ephemeral. "What happened to MoveOn.org? What happened to Organizing for America?" he asked. "Those weren't movements, perhaps, they were more like campaigns. But maybe this isn't a movement either. People like to talk about it in those terms, but it's unclear if this is going to last past the 2010 election."
Kazin is currently teaching a class on the history of conservatism in the U.S., which he plans to end on the Tea Party movement. As with other recent conservative resurgences, the Tea Parties are likely to be institutionalized within the Republican Party or else "decline and die," Kazin said. "Maybe both."
When asked whether there could be a possible "Tea Party ticket," as Fox News host Bill O'Reilly recently suggested, Kazin was dismissive of the idea. "Unless Republicans are pretty inept politically, which they've shown themselves not to be, most Tea Party people will vote for and campaign for Republicans," he said. Every headache the activists cause the Republican establishment is likely to be salved elsewhere in the form of an energized electorate, more small-dollar donations and a slow co-opting of the Tea Parties' energies, he added.
"That's the history of political movements from below in this country," Kazin said. "They just aren't able, and in many cases aren't willing, to construct their own organizations which are separate from the parties. They want to get into power. And if you want to get to power in this country, you don't normally do it unless you link up with one of the major parties."