The mainstream media notwithstanding, there is no denying the enormous impact the Tea Party movement has had on American politics since 2009. No grassroots movement has risen so quickly, so spontaneously, and changed the national political narrative so rapidly in recent memory. Despite that success, the question of the Tea Party’s long-term impact on American government remains open. The movement is still young, evolving, struggling to define itself, and learning to play presidential politics for the first time. The Tea Partiers in Congress and at the local and state levels are only just starting to have a short-term impact since being sworn in last year.
But the focus of the movement should always be on how to have a long-term impact. Decades from now, those of us who were there at the beginning and those who engaged in the political process for the first time as part of the movement should be able to see real, fundamental change. This systemic change is necessary to turn back the clock on another grassroots movement that more than a century ago set out to remake America.
In the late 1890s, the Progressive movement arose from the middle and working classes, with deep concerns about transparency and accountability in government. They were for the most part ordinary Americans concerned with workers’ rights and abuse of power by corporations. At the time of its origins, the Progressive movement was local, built from the ground up, with no real national leaders, but there were common themes.