On hearing a bon mot from someone, Oscar Wilde responded, “I wish I’d said that.”
“You will, Oscar, you will,” replied his friend James McNeill Whistler.
I know what he meant. I’ve just finished reading Walter Russell Mead’s blog post over at the American Interest on the Tea Party movement. It’s a brilliant piece of work and, indeed, “I wish I’d said that.”
Mead puts the movement firmly in the context of American history, demonstrating the similarity of this movement with previous populist movements in the Jacksonian, Progressive, and New Deal eras. All those movements changed the country profoundly and were anti-elitist in nature. As Mead explains,
The Tea Party movement is the latest upsurge of an American populism that has sometimes sided with the left and sometimes with the right, but which over and over again has upended American elites, restructured our society and forced through the deep political, cultural and institutional changes that from time to time the country needs and which the ruling elites cannot or will not deliver.
While it is way too early to tell how powerful the Tea Party movement will prove to be, it is certainly anti-elitist to the core. But this time, unlike in Jackson’s and Roosevelt’s days, the elite doesn’t really recognize itself as being an elite. They think they are doing the people’s work, even if the people are too stupid to know what’s good for them. Like Mead, I think those elites are soon to find out what the word democracy really means.
As Mead points out, the movement does not yet have its Jackson, Roosevelt, or Reagan to lead and personify it, making it still somewhat inchoate. But great movements make great leaders at least as often as the other way around.
If you want a beautiful example of the power of history to explicate the present, I recommend this brief and profound essay by Walter Russell Mead.