The rise of the Tea Party
Seemingly overnight, a fractious populist movement has become a potent force in American politics. Can it last?
What is the Tea Party?For starters, it’s not really a party. Political parties have leaders, rules, and organizational structure; the Tea Party has none of these. Rather, it’s a political movement defined more by what it’s against than by what it’s for. Named after the original American tax revolt in 1773, the Tea Party movement brings together a loose coalition of conservatives and libertarians united by their anger over “big government,” taxes, and the soaring federal deficit. The hundreds of thousands of people who turned out at Tea Party rallies around the country over the past year include “birthers,” who don’t believe Barack Obama is a legitimate president, and militia members packing weapons and waving signs likening Obama to Hitler. But rallies have also attracted housewives, small-business owners, and others who sincerely believe the nation is headed for fiscal ruin and that their personal liberties are under threat. “There are a lot of people just waking up,” says Jack Walsh, who belongs to a Tea Party group in Texas. “They know something is wrong with their government, but they don’t know what it is.”
How did the movement get started?Most insiders credit a blogger in Seattle named Keli Carender, aka Liberty Belle. Appalled by the $787 billion stimulus package (which she labeled “porkulus”), Carender called for a local protest in Seattle in early February 2009; about 100 people showed up. The event became the talk of the conservative blogosphere, and similar protests were organized in Denver, Kansas City, and other cities. A couple weeks later, CNBC analyst Rick Santelli unleashed an on-air rant against government bailouts of banks and debt-ridden mortgage holders with taxpayer funds, calling for a modern-day Boston Tea Party. The rant became an instant YouTube sensation, and soon protesters began calling themselves Tea Partiers, and “tea” was turned into an acronym—for Taxed Enough Already. Fox News began heavily promoting the movement, and on April 15, Tax Day, raucous protests were held all over the country. Obama’s health-care-reform package was the primary target.
Who runs the Tea Party?Nobody, really, which helps explain both its appeal and its limitations. Its highest-profile advocates include anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, online organizer Eric Odom of the American Liberty Alliance, former Republican House leader Dick Armey, and media personalities Glenn Beck of Fox News and talk radio’s Mark Williams. The decentralized nature of the movement has enabled it to develop organically, largely driven by the passion of citizens who had never before been politically active. But it also has led to messy—and increasingly divisive—infighting. A major internal debate concerns whether the Tea Party should try to become a “third force” in American politics, or essentially take over the Republican Party and drive out anyone who doesn’t share the movement’s goals and principles.
What are the goals and principles?The movement’s primary focus has been on Washington’s “fiscal irresponsibility.” It has called for lower taxes, balanced budgets, and a halt to all “stimulus” spending and federal bailouts. But it has also drawn in social conservatives who resent the intervention of courts or the federal government on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and Christianity in the public square. For some Tea Partiers, illegal immigration is the critical issue; for others, it’s the right to bear arms. What unites them all is a feeling that they want to “take back our country” from elitists in Washington, New York, Hollywood, and academia. “I’m back for the second American revolution,” said one protester dressed in colonial garb at a Tea Party protest in Kentucky. “My weapons this time will be the Constitution, the Internet, and talk radio.”
Where does the movement go from here?If the history of populist American movements is any guide, it could slowly peter out (see below). But in backing Republican pro-choice moderate Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate race, Tea Partiers showed a pragmatic willingness to sacrifice ideological purity to achieve their goal of stripping Democrats of a filibuster-proof Senate majority. At last week’s convention, attendees flocked to such workshops as “How to Do Voter Registration Drives” and “Where to Find Conservative Votes,” suggesting activists may be transitioning from an angry outside force into a more mainstream one. They also have proved adept at using the blogosphere and social-networking sites such as Facebook to mobilize supporters—tools unavailable to previous populist movements. “I think Republicans dismiss this at their peril,” says political analyst Matthew Dowd. “I also think Democrats, by trying to marginalize it, underestimate the anger out there.”
Channeling the angerSince the 19th century, angry populist movements have arisen every few decades in American history, from the anti-immigrant “Know Nothings” of the 1840s to the agrarian People’s Party of the late 19th century, which called for the government to break up the banks and railroads. What distinguishes the Tea Party from most precursors, scholars say, is that populist uprisings have tended to be class-based, with anger directed at moneyed elites. Tea Partiers do rail against the big bank bailouts, and they identify with Main Street and not Wall Street. But most of their wrath is directed at the federal government, which they consider corrupt and a threat to liberty. This libertarian streak is a new wrinkle for populist movements, and it remains to be seen whether the Tea Party will break other new ground as well. Typically, says historian Michael Kazin of Georgetown University, such movements fade, because the purists and idealists driving them find change difficult to achieve; eventually, mainstream parties co-opt their causes and channel the anger. “They want to get to power,” Kazin says, “and if you want to get to power in this country, you don’t normally do it unless you link up with one of the major parties.”