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The Tea Party 600: Canaries in the Political Coal Mine?

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There was much to mock about this past weekend's Tea Party convention: the low turnout, Tom Tancredo's repulsive immigrant bashing, a conspiracy-drenched documentary claiming the financial crisis was deliberately engineered by radical 1960s ideologues bent on bringing down capitalism, and, of course, Sarah Palin's keynote lite.

But it would be a huge mistake to dismiss the movement that led to the event.

Yes, some of the Tea Party movement is ugly. Yes, some of the Tea Party movement is race-based. Yes, some of the Tea Party movement is being bankrolled by conservative political groups -- and all of it promoted by Fox News. But focusing only on those elements obscures the fact that some of what's fueling the movement is based on a completely legitimate anger directed at Washington and the political establishment of both parties.

Think of the Tea Party movement as a boil alerting us to the infection lurking under the skin of the body politic.

In his recent piece about the Tea Parties, The New Yorker's Ben McGrath wrote:

If there was a central theme to the proceedings, it was probably best expressed in the refrain 'Can you hear us now?', conveying a long-standing grievance that the political class in Washington is unresponsive to the needs and worries of ordinary Americans. Republicans and Democrats alike were targets of derision.

Though this weekend's event had a decidedly conservative bent, it was interesting to watch how during the Q&A session after her speech, both Palin and Judson Phillips, the chief organizer of the convention, proudly informed the crowd that neither of their spouses vote Republican.

And thanks to the botched bank bailout, anti-government rhetoric -- a conservative hallmark since Ronald Reagan branded government the problem, not the solution -- has moved beyond the ideological right.

Indeed, at times in her speech, Palin sounded like the second coming of Huey Long. "While people on Main Street look for jobs, people on Wall Street -- they're collecting billions and billions in your bailout bonuses," she said. "And everyday Americans are wondering: Where are the consequences? They helped to get us into this worst economic situation since the Great Depression. Where are the consequences?"

I was within an inch of singing along: "Yeah, where are the consequences!? You tell 'em, Sarah!"

I've written about how the middle class is teetering on the brink of collapse. And the bleak indicators just keep piling up: a new study found that one in eight Americans received emergency food aid last year -- up almost 50 percent from 2005. The numbers are even worse for kids: one in five. That's 14 million children facing hunger. In America.

Can you hear them now?

Tim Geithner doesn't seem to. There he was again this weekend, on ABC's This Week, assuring us that "the economy is now growing again," and "we're seeing some encouraging signs of healing."

At the same time, on NBC's Meet the Press, his predecessor Hank Paulson was equally upbeat: "I have great confidence that we have touched a dynamic private sector in this country that they're eventually going to begin creating jobs." And a little later, he let us know that the deficit is "by far the most serious long-term challenge we, as a nation, face. All these other issues... are minor compared to that."

These other issues he was referring to were jobs and the epidemic of foreclosures. Minor, eh?

Can you hear them now?

Is there anything worse, when you're struggling and mad as hell, than being told to chill out? Geithner's latest tone-deaf pep talk, and Paulson's faith that "ultimately" there will be jobs, certainly aren't going to assuage the anxiety and anger middle-class Americans are feeling.

"Discontent with the present and apprehension about the future have become the background noise of our politics," writes Tim Rutten in the LA Times, "yet both sides of the congressional aisle seem deaf to the din."

He then goes on to quote historian Ian Kershaw: "There are times -- they mark the danger point for a political system -- when politicians can no longer communicate, when they stop understanding the language of the people they are supposed to be representing."

Maybe that explains the lackadaisical, going-through-the-motions response of the White House to the rising chorus of middle-class anger, and the prediction among many economists that, in the end, there will be no substantial financial reform.

Calling the administration's latest proposals "superficial," Simon Johnson laments: "There will be no serious attempt to cut financial institutions down to a size at which they could be allowed to fail. With their incentive structure intact -- they get the upside and regular folk get the downside -- Big Finance is ready to roll into the next great global boom-bust cycle."

In fact, for Wall Street, the next boom appears to have already started. Our "recovery" might be "jobless," but it's certainly not bonusless. And, no, poor Lloyd Blankfein getting a bonus of "only" $9 million this year won't diffuse the populist outrage. And comments like this from compensation consultant Mark Borges don't help: "It's almost as if he's taking a bullet for everyone else."

How brave of him. I'm sure we'd have no trouble finding someone among the 16.5 million unemployed and underemployed willing to take that gold-plated bullet.

It's ironic: Democrats have been waiting 30 years for a populist movement to counter the Reagan Revolution. And now that it has, Democrats find themselves the targets of that movement, caught in flagrante delicto with the big banks -- and more in thrall to the deficit hysteria sweeping Washington instead of fighting for an aggressive, comprehensive plan to rescue the middle class.

"Washington now has its priorities all wrong," writes Paul Krugman, "all the talk is about how to shave a few billion dollars off government spending, while there's hardly any willingness to tackle mass unemployment. Policy is headed in the wrong direction -- and millions of Americans will pay the price."

And more and more of them, frustrated and convinced that their leaders don't have any empathy for their situation, will increasingly turn to movements like the Tea Parties.

Will our leaders -- finally -- hear them now?

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