A University of Kentucky professor once told me that to understand the roots of populist discontent in our state I should read a term paper written by Edward F. Prichard Jr. in 1935, when he was a 20-year-old senior from Paris, Ky., at Princeton University.
Titled "Popular Political Movements in Kentucky, 1875-1900," this undergraduate research of 256 pages was the equivalent of a doctoral dissertation, the professor said.
Reading this paper, an analysis of Democratic and Republican politics after Reconstruction and the third-party impulses at the fringes of the two parties, I was struck by young Prichard's sympathies for the farmers, miners and propertyless workers whom he saw as frustrated independent actors and "a pitiful object of corruption in elections."
Now, with Prichard, who died in 1984, more remembered as the redeemed champion of education reform in his last years than for the achievements and mistakes of the brilliant but arrogant political activist he was in his youth, another UK professor has written a study of the political eruption that has roiled the nation and Kentucky's politics since 2009.
A timely primer on the subject that most dominated the news of recent primary elections, The Tea Party: A Brief History by Ronald Formisano provides basic information about the movement's origins, its significance and its place in political history.
Brief, indeed. One could have read most of this book between the 6 p.m. closing of the polls during Kentucky's primary last month and the final tallies that showed Thomas Massie, the boyish Lewis County judge-executive with the MIT degree and endorsement of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, had romped over two well- established Republicans to win the nomination for an open congressional seat in Kentucky's 4th District.
A reader might marvel at Formisano's report that the Tea (as in "taxed enough already") Party movement and supporters "now virtually dominate the Republican base and in 2012 may constitute 40 percent of Republican voters."
Although Paul is one of four senators who caucus as Tea Party members, he and his look-alike protégé Massie ran as Republicans. Amazingly, however, polls show 10 percent of all voters in the party regard themselves as Tea Party members first and Republicans second. "About half of all Tea Party activists hold an unfavorable view of the Republican Party," Formisano writes.
Tea Party public protests didn't emerge until after President George W. Bush had left office, but once Barack Obama entered the Oval Office, Tea Party rallies and marches "focused like a laser beam" on their core issues: federal government spending, the soaring debt and big government.
The social insurgencies of the late 19th century studied by Prichard created a populist clamor for cheaper money, debt relief, reduced working hours, an end to child labor, and protection for unions that could come only through more, rather than less, government regulation.
The Progressive Era (1908-24) saw an activist government break up the monied trusts, but, paradoxically, many of today's Tea Party members, viewing government as "the enemy," support their campaigns with rivers of cash from wealthy anti-tax donors who are not, perhaps, all that different from the railroad and Wall Street robber barons who were seen as "the special interests" 100 years ago.
Although Formisano is an occasional contributor of opinion articles of a liberal perspective to the Herald-Leader, he is a highly respected authority on the history of populist movements. In an evenhanded way he writes of the origins of the Tea Party or Tea Parties (there are many competing factions), in resentments against so-called "elites," and various alliances and rejections at the grass roots.
Seven short chapters give insights on involvements by the religious right and big business, mad-as-hell frustration with politics as usual, media coverage (especially by a supportive Fox News), and "astroturf populism," described by the much demonized Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi as a movement more artificial than authentic by some of the wealthiest Americans "to keep the focus on tax cuts for the rich instead of for the great middle class."