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Media miss new populist wave

| Saturday, May 17, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Brian Sullivan now knows the frustration that many Republicans feel every time some media outlet trots out another wackadoodle who says, with assumed authority, that he or she represents the party's mainstream attitudes.

Sullivan, the likeable CNBC anchor and host of its “Street Signs” program, comes across as an Everyman on his show. On a recent MSNBC “Morning Joe” segment, he passionately rebutted the panel's conversation about the state of Republicans.

“Can we stop saying ‘the Republican Party'? As somebody that grew up in a conservative household, I don't recognize the Republican Party of even my youth,” he said. “I don't like what I see. I don't like the far right. I don't like the extremism. They've pushed me away.”

Sullivan ended by saying he doesn't like a lot of far-right small-mindedness.

Here is the chaser to Sullivan's shot: No one else does, either.

Yet the media continue to report that such stuff represents mainstream Republican thought when it doesn't. It is a laughable caricature that makes for great reading or television, but is far from the truth.

Some unquestioning journalists are fed this nonsense by the White House, paid partisan pundits, the Democrats' campaign committees — or the likes of Charlie Crist, this midterm election's version of Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania party-switcher who never missed an opportunity to tell tales about the supposedly extremist GOP he had left.

Or they're fed a line by wackadoodles on the right, who exist only as a small percentage of the Republican Party but are loud enough to get attention.

By portraying the GOP as an extremist party with no room for anyone who doesn't agree, much of the media miss what is happening in the American electorate — the building of a new populist wave.

For all intents and purposes, the tea party movement is gone, following the pattern of most populist political movements in our history. Such movements generally peak after two election cycles, or they are taken over by the most extreme elements of their membership (or by unscrupulous political fundraisers); those who initially supported the movements often settle back into their party of origin, or they become independent voters who feel free to pick a person, not a party.

It is not as if the tea party's strong sentiments — curbing big government and big spending — don't still exist out there. They do. In fact, they are a big part of the basis for this new, still-unnamed wave that is building beyond Washington, D.C.

Yet many people are fed up with all the labels attached to their political beliefs, whether it is “tea party,” “Democrat” or “Republican.”

In an effort to hold on to their seats in Washington, Democrats have tried to create a populist movement by pushing gender, income, race and other divisive issues as voting triggers.

Republicans have tried to do the same thing with religion, contraception, marriage and other social issues.

But populism is a funny thing: You can't create it on command, and the kind of rage needed to foster it is sustainable for only so long before it fades.

The nation is in the midst of an economic revolution, very similar to the Industrial Revolution that began 250 years ago, filled with very similar social and political readjustments, and powered by a profound discontent with the way government is functioning.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, the way government is not functioning.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (szito@tribweb.com).

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