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‘Tea party’ movement: lessons from earlier uprisings

While movements like the tea party have fervor and anger, historians caution that such groups can quickly lose momentum and influence.

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Bill Bruss of Winfield, Ill., gives away plastic bags in the vendor area at the first ever Tea Party Nation Convention in Nashville, this weekend.

Ed Reinke/AP

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The first-ever Tea Party Nation convention this weekend in Nashville, Tenn., taps into two great, and sometimes troubling, traditions in American history – both of which have to do with the unique democratic experiment that is America.

On the one hand is the Jeffersonian strain – a return to the ideals of the individual and the blessings of small, restrained government. On the other hand is a strain of McCarthy-type paranoia that started well before the mid-1900s. In the 1850s, it gave rise to the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party, and according to some critics, it was a factor in the xenophobic supremacist movements of the late 20th century.

Now, at the “tea party” convention, the fractious movement will try to agree on its basic principles. It will also try to decide whether to wield its growing power locally or nationally.

“This is one of these moments we’re going to be teaching in 20 years,” says Robert Watson, a political science professor at Lynn University, in Boca Raton, Fla. “It’s a moment that changes America’s democracy and citizen involvement.”

But while movements like the tea party have fervor and anger, historians caution that such groups can quickly lose momentum and influence: Their passion might be absorbed by one of the two main political parties, or their complaints could be addressed by changing circumstances.

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