The Tea Party Question

A specter is haunting America—the specter of the Tea Party. If you’ve read a newspaper, opened a magazine, or watched the news in the last few months or so, then you’ve likely heard already about how the Tea Party is the next great popular force in American politics. The Tea Party helped Massachusetts elect a Republican senator to replace Ted Kennedy; the Tea Party has helped thwart President Obama’s plan for health care reform; the Tea Party helped fan the rage at Obama’s counterterrorism policy that ultimately blocked Eric Holder’s plans to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York City. In short, the Tea Party has become the vessel for outrage and disillusionment with the government.

The fact that there is so much outrage and disillusionment, though, shouldn’t be surprising, given the current state of the economy and the look of the political landscape. Populism and indignity traditionally swell when the economy is bad and when people perceive broad change to be afoot. Well, America’s economic woes are no secret, and the current President is a black guy who got to office by promising sweeping change.

This formula has resulted in a situation in which seemingly every decision, action, or event garners some significant backlash or reaction. The populace is currently upset about virtually everything: a sagging economy, a cartoonishly ballooning deficit, two drawn-out wars, national security missteps, health care reform, the failure of health care reform, the bank bailouts, the auto bailouts, Bernie Madoff, and an apocalyptic amount of snow.

Naturally, all this outrage means that some people are certainly going to be dissatisfied with the party in power. And Democrats, with control of the White House and one of the biggest Congressional majorities since Reconstruction, are certainly easy targets, crying foul over their inability to govern without a supermajority in the Senate, as if they were somehow entitled to 60 senators.

But the real reason that the Tea Party has become the collection plate for all the overrun of anger in the nation is the failure of the Republican Party. For the last few years now, the Republicans have faced quite the conundrum. Having been the party associated with the worst presidency in the country’s history, it is still suffering from a public relations setback. People, understandably, have lost faith in the GOP and its adherence to its stated principles. After all, by the end of the Bush Administration, conservatives were almost as displeased with it as liberals. 

And so the Republican Party ceased to be the bastion of conservative principles that it had proclaimed itself as, inflating the deficit, initiating the series of bailouts and stimulus packages, establishing an interventionist foreign policy, etc. So where were conservatives to turn? The conservative movement and ideology could not be expected to vanish once President Bush faded away, so where would conservatives channel their political energy?

The answer, of course, is the Tea Party. The Tea Party was not tainted with the stink of the Republicans’ failings. In fact, the earliest political movements of the Tea Party were designed to purge the Republican Party of those not conservative enough, as it did in the 2009 special election in New York’s 23rd district.

The Tea Party doesn’t just appeal to Republicans—if that were the case, then the movement would be of relatively minor importance—but it is unmistakably conservative. The principles and values associated with the movement are classically conservative. From the mainstream views of fewer taxes (the movement began as part of a Tax Day protest in 2009) and less government intervention in the economy to the more fringe ideas like abolishing the Federal Reserve and denying global warming, the ideas of the Tea Party are not new—they are ideas that have long been associated with the conservative movement in America.

What’s so important about the Tea Party, though, is how it has been able to cloak these traditional conservative ideas in the garb of populism. One of the most iconic moments in the Tea Party’s long and complicated origins (which we’ll get into in a second) was Rick Santelli’s famous February 2009 rant from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on CNBC. In it, Santelli proposes setting up an online referendum to determine the fate of the bailouts and accuses the Administration of subsidizing “losers’ mortgages.” Santelli’s diatribe includes all the populist frills, from emotional anger, to ridiculous pantomimes, to a call-and-response with his audience. And yet it is also a bizarre inversion of populism. Santelli, a financial analyst on a business television on the floor of a commercial exchange, is decrying a policy that was intended to provide an immediate stopgap to a large mass of people. Populism generally supports things with short-term palliative effects and unsound long-term thinking. Populism is generally the domain of the working class, or the average person—it is not reserved for the floors of commercial exchanges.

This is the key to the Tea Party’s success: turning conservative principles and ideas into an ideology that captures the resentment and anger of the average American. As a result, the Tea Party appeals to two groups of people: First, it appeals to conservatives who feel betrayed and disillusioned by the Republican Party. This is a pretty sizable group. This includes people like Ron Paul and his supporters, as well as Glenn Beck and his 9-12 followers. But the Tea Party also appeals to the feelings of rage, fear, and disillusionment that are almost universal amongst the poorer, working class. These are not people who would self-identify as “conservative” or have even ever voted Republican, but they are angry about the state of the country, and the Tea Party is a perfect outlet for that anger.

It’s important to realize, though, that these two bases for support are not just different, but also competing and often contradictory. Take, for example, a huge source of outrage among Tea Partiers: the bonuses paid by companies receiving bailout money. One of the unifying rallying cries of the Tea Party has been that Timothy Geithner, Ben Bernanke, Larry Summers, et. al. deserve to lose their jobs for, among other things, allowing AIG and other companies to pay bonuses to their executives despite receiving billions of dollars in federal aid. This outrage helped motivate Chris Dodd’s retirement, and Sarah Palin even took shots at the bonuses in her speech at last week’s Tea Party Convention. And yet the bonuses were paid out of deference to market capitalism, since the government could not violate the contracts of AIG’s employees. Plenty of conservatives, including Rush Limbaugh, understood this and defended AIG. Nevertheless, the Tea Party has managed to exploit the popular outrage over the issue to attract supporters.

How can the Tea Party sustain these contradictory views? By remaining loosely defined. When I first set out to find out about the Tea Party, I had a few simple questions. What is the Tea Party? Who started it? What are the policies it supports? The answers to all three still elude me.

As for the first one, there is no single “Tea Party”; it is not an actual political party or even any single organization that covers the movement. There are the Tea Party Patriots, who have been the most vocal in opposing Obama’s health care plan, but they weren’t at the National Tea Party Convention. The convention was organized by Tea Party Nation, but that is a for-profit private corporation. There’s also the Tea Party Express, and Glenn Beck’s 9-12 Project, and probably hundreds if not thousands of smaller, local groups that have affiliated themselves with the Tea Party movement.

Who started the Tea Party movement? Well, that is up for debate. Some say Sarah Palin was the first to energize this group. Some say Rick Santelli was the first to use the term “tea party,” but he denies explicit affiliation with the movement (although he supports it). The best answer may be to say that it is actually a grassroots movement without any single founder.

What policies does the Tea Party support? I’m also unclear on this one. There are plenty of views associated with them, but its core policy beliefs are hard to pin down. I can tell you plenty of things Tea Partiers don’t support, like taxes, Obama’s health care plan, bailouts, the Federal Reserve, deficits, Obama, Timothy Geithner, and infringements on Second Amendment rights.

This last question is another key part of the Tea Party’s success: By defining itself negatively—that is, purely in opposition to what is proposed—the Tea Party does not have to have any coherent, or even rational, ideas. The Tea Party can be whatever its members want it to be. You don’t like the growing deficit? Great, we’re against that, too! Lost your job? The government probably gave it to an immigrant! Worried that Obama is going to personally euthanize your grandmother? Well, come protest his health care plan with us! Hate paying taxes? We’re Taxed Enough Already also!

But this isn’t reasoned opposition, it’s emotional opposition. It’s opposition that comes from resentment of authority and knee-jerk hostility towards whatever that authority has come to symbolize. Take the Taxed Enough Already backronym, coming from the Tea Party’s association with the Tax Day protests. Opposing tax increases is fine, but pretty pointless given the fact that President Obama has actually lowered taxes for most Americans while in office (of course, you can make a valid argument that increasing the deficit as he has necessitates raising taxes eventually, but this isn’t an argument most Tea Partiers are making, since only 2% realize that he’s lowered them). Opposing the health care reform bill is fine, but calling it “socialism” is utterly ridiculous (seriously, Lenin would be appalled by what passes for socialism these days).

If the Tea Party supports anything, then it is more likely to stand for amorphous and vague principles and values than for anything else. This is the worst thing about the Tea Party. The Tea Party, and populism in general, turns politics into a theater of ideologies and principles. By defining itself in terms of support of things like family values, the Constitution, personal responsibility, and honesty, as opposed to specific plans for tax cuts, budget reduction, and health care reform, the Tea Party attracts a wide range of supporters. It also says absolutely nothing of substance. Do you know who is against personal responsibility? Fucking nobody, that’s who.

There is no standard set for Tea Party “beliefs,” but a popular one is the 9 Principles and 12 Values set forth by Beck’s 9-12 Project. Every one of the principles/values is either benign or worthless. The #2 Principle is “America is good.” Oh, okay. Glad we got that one out of the way. Some have a political slant, like #7 that says, “I work hard for what I have and I will share it with who I want to. Government cannot force me to be charitable.” But what does it mean for the government to “force me to be charitable”? Is it “charity” to pay for the police force? The Army? Social Security?

As useless as these dictums are, by framing beliefs in terms of “principle” as opposed to policy, the Tea Party manages to seem righteous. This helps appeal to people’s sense of injustice in the current political and economic climate. In other words, the Tea Party defines itself in opposition to things people already oppose and, in its place, proposes only simple, easily accepted platitudes that can be interpreted to support anything from reasoned conservatism to borderline lunacy.

And as is generally the case with populism, lunacy wins out. Like most populist movements, the Tea Party is associated with certain causes, in the same way the Populist Party was associated with the free silver movement, the Bull Moose Party was associated with trust-busting, is associated with the anti-Iraq War movement, and so many other “populist” movements have associated causes. Unlike these cases, though, it is much harder to tie the Tea Party to any specific policy. Like these other populist causes, the Tea Party is motivated less by any concrete set of beliefs, but more by a general dissatisfaction with the status quo. As a result, any complaint, no matter where it is directed or how it is logically related to any real problem, is welcome in the Tea Party, so long as it is directed as the status quo.

Since most of the Tea Partiers are drawn to the cause for emotional reasons, the Tea Party has become, most of all, a cesspool of resentment and hostility towards the government. The Tea Party, as an anti-status quo party, attracts a wide range of extreme elements and fringe groups: global warming deniers, Obama birthers, militia movements, etc. Bringing them all together both radicalizes them (since they are surrounded by like-minded people) and legitimates them (since they form such a large and potent political force).

There is even a latent racism in all of this. Most Tea Partiers are not racists (although the Tea Party is overwhelmingly white), but there is certainly a racial component to their instinctual feeling that Obama is out to get them or impose socialism on the entire world. It’s reminiscent of the Sen. McCain supporter who told the candidate “I don’t trust Obama…. He’s an Arab.” Based on that clip, I think a lot of people expected a groundswell of intuitive “distrust” of President Obama; we just didn’t realize it would be this big.

If the movement is supported by peoples’ rage and resentment, then it might be easy to dismiss it is a political fad, and declare that it will harmlessly fade away. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the Tea Party’s power. For one, it’ already having a hand in elections, most notably Scott Brown’s. Even more disturbing, though, is how willing many Tea Partiers are to resort to violence. In this respect, they seem noticeably different from other populist movements. If you combine anger with a propensity for guns and violence and a large group of nuts who think Obama is an Arab who wasn’t born in America, then I don’t think it’s extreme to imagine some people affiliated with the Tea Party committing some acts of violence in the name of some vague cause like “the Constitution.”

There is always a place for extreme views in a democracy—there will always be a small segment loading up on guns for the eventual government take over. But bad economic times and disillusionment bring more people to the fringe. The Tea Party’s power will fade once the economy turns around, but based on most predictions, that won’t happen for a long time, which means the Tea Party will only grow and radicalize in the coming months and years.

 Populism always has an ugly side. After all, it replaces reason with self-righteousness; substantive debate with platitudes and emotional appeals. But populism thrives in a democracy, and its legacy is found in things like the Tea Party. 

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by doc on February 21, 2010 at 3:07 PM

    Excellent article John. George Will published something similar today about populism and Sarah Palin. Here’s the link (and for goodness sake, will somebody show me how to do the link thing without showing the link?):


  2. […] the House passed last night? Did anyone hear about this? Why wasn’t it a bigger deal? Oh, and the Tea Party folks handled it with typical poise and […]


  3. […] Taibbi’s profile of the Tea Party movement is even more negative than the one John S wrote in February (it is also much funnier and better-written). Meanwhile, New York Times Magazine profiled […]


  4. W.J.K. – We must believe in the unity of the country and cherish conservative values of the patriots, and not to look back nor compromise what we have been blessed with.

    Just Say NO to: Democrats, Leftist, Liberalism, Socialism,

    God Bless America


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