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The origins of the Tea Party are broad and deep, but the spark that set it off happened on February 19, 2009, when CNBC Business News editor Rick Santelli, in a broadcast from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, called for a “tea party” to dump derivatives into the Chicago River. His call for action went viral and by Tax Day, April 15, over 750 Tea Party rallies were held across the country, with nearly 300,000 people in total participating.
The Tea Party is neither a political party nor a monolithic political movement—it is rather a loose collection of like-minded groups; some of these groups are small, grassroots organizations, others are well-funded, corporate-backed entities. What unifies these groups is anger over taxpayer-funded bailouts of big banks and companies and wasteful federal spending, antipathy to social entitlements in general and health care reform in particular (though polls indicate that a majority of Tea Partiers do not want cuts made in existing Medicare and Social Security benefits), and self-identification as Republican and conservative.
Tea Party supporters tend to be older, whiter, and somewhat more affluent—and more likely to self-identify as conservative—than the general population. The most important element of Tea Party ideology is economic—supporters tend to be staunch free-marketers and staunch opponents of government intervention in the economy—in other words, they want less government, and lots of it. Tea Partiers also tend to support orthodox conservative positions on social issues like gay marriage and foreign policy, are skeptical of climate change, and support anti-illegal immigration measures. Many are skeptical of America’s involvement in foreign wars. Nonetheless, those policy preferences are less at the core of Tea Party identity.
The Tea Party had an outsized influence on the 2010 midterm election. Tea Party-aligned Republican candidates won House, Senate, and gubernatorial seats throughout the country, with some big winners being Senator Scott Brown in Massachusetts, Senator Rand Paul in Kentucky, and Governor Nikki Haley in South Carolina. However, the Tea Party also unseated many establishment Republican candidates in the primaries; in some cases, the Tea Party candidates proved to be too extreme for their constituents—Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Sharron Angle in Nevada, and Joe Miller in Alaska, all of whom lost close Senate elections to their Democratic opponents.
What the Left Says
Liberals have been very critical of the Tea Party since the beginning of the movement, seeing it as an overreaction to the election of a Democratic president. Some liberals go even further in stating that the Tea Party is an overreaction to a black president, and indeed, one of the more common liberal criticisms of the Tea Party is that it’s racist, citing the movement’s largely white demographic make-up and the occasional insensitive protest placard. Another common liberal criticism is that the movement is fundamentally inauthentic: it was hyped and sold, so they say, by the conservative Fox News Channel, and that too many of the most influential Tea Party groups are in fact fronts for wealthy and powerful Republican interests. Freedom Works, one of the largest, is run by former GOP House majority leader Dick Armey.
What the Right Says
Conservatives maintain that the Tea Party is an organic movement that has been misrepresented, even slandered, in the mainstream media as “neo-Klansman and knuckle-dragging hillbillies.” Far from embodying these odious stereotypes, conservatives believe Tea Partiers are law-abiding, patriotic American citizens who are very worried about the direction of the country. They’re concerned about excess regulations, taxes, and government corruption and crony capitalism. Indeed, for conservatives, the Tea Party provided a much needed dose of reality in contrast to the almost messianic expectations liberals had for Barack Obama.
The Tea Party is a movement very aware of the power of history as a force in politics. The use of the iconic Revolutionary War name and clothing has given it an instant identification in the public mind, helping reinforce its commitment to the Constitution.
Indeed, the political power of the original Boston Tea Party of 1773 has been recognized since the bicentennial of 1976, when anti-tax activists donned colonial garb to protest what they viewed as unconstitutional taxes. Even Ron Paul, the GOP’s most uncompromising libertarian and candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, held a “Tea Party” fundraiser on the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party.
Indeed, Tea Party-influenced commentators like Glenn Beck have been instrumental in sparking a popular reassessment of many American presidents. Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and other progressive presidents and public figures have been reinterpreted not as crusaders for social justice, but statists who wished to limit individual freedoms. The most extreme reinterpretations have drawn lines connecting Wilson to Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
On an organizational level, the Tea Party also has antecedents in the several waves of right-wing populism that have ebbed and flowed since the Great Depression. Much of the rhetoric leveled against President Obama today—that he’s a socialist who wants to dismantle capitalism—echo charges levied against Franklin Delano Roosevelt back in the 1930s.
Topics for Discussion