The surge of the Tea Party as a potential shaker and mover of the American political system is reminiscent of a movement from the sixties that became particularly popular in the bellwether state of California.
The John Birch Society became active and many grassroots members attached themselves strongly to the national political figure they saw as an agent for change, Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona.
Forces quickly developed during the historic 1964 presidential campaign, which saw Goldwater ultimately emerge as his party's nominee against President Lyndon Johnson. As the first southern president of the twentieth century, Johnson engineered a landmark legislative breakthrough with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
A strong ideological battle emerged that pitted Goldwater against major senatorial figures from his own party such as the stalwart of the then eastern liberal wing, Jacob Javits of New York, and Republican Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who had actively supported and voted for the milestone legislation.
Goldwater opposed the civil rights act. His stated reason was that the section dealing with public accommodations was unconstitutional. When some critics alleged that his vote was racially motivated an indignant Goldwater asserted that in 1949 as a Phoenix city councilman he helped lead the effort to outlaw segregation there.
Despite Goldwater's inner motivation, staunch racist elements gravitated toward his cause based on his opposition to the milestone civil rights legislation. At the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco the situation became ugly, and in a forum where citizens throughout the nation had a ringside view from their television sets.
Strident and angry southern delegates behaved aggressively, treating major party figures such as leading eastern establishment Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York with contempt, interrupting a speech he made urging Republicans to reject a far right intrusion into the Party of Lincoln with choruses of boos and catcalls.
During floor demonstrations African American delegates would be bullied and harassed. On one occasion hostile pro-Goldwater delegates set an African American delegate afire.
This open hostility calls to mind the angry Tea Party demonstration at the Capitol Mall when President Obama's health care legislation was reaching a vote. One angry demonstrator spat on an African American congressman. During that same demonstration an avowedly homosexual congressman was verbally assaulted with discriminatory epithets.
Could Rand Paul be another bellwether figure slated for trouble for his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act? While he can argue, as did Goldwater, that his opposition stemmed from deeply grounded constitutional principles, and it is known that Paul's views reside within libertarianism, the ultimate question is how these positions play out in an aggressive activist front.
During that same momentous election year bellwether California John Birch Society and other kindred right wing activists obtained the required signatures to place a measure on the California ballot to repeal the recently passed Rumford Fair Housing Act. The measure's proponents argued that, no matter how people felt about racial and other forms of discrimination, citizens had the right to practice discrimination if they so chose.
In a year when President Johnson carried California by a large margin over Senator Goldwater and scored one of the greatest landslides in American history nationally, the housing initiative passed by a wide margin.
After that the result predicted by most leading constitutional legal scholars occurred. The initiative was overturned in federal court, never reaching the U.S. Supreme Court.