page updated on August 12, 2015

Who Are the Tea Party?

If death and taxes are certainties, protests of both are no less certain.

The history of the United States is full of men and women determined to build things on their own. This so-called rugged self-determination combined with a sense of destiny for conquering a new land has given rise to an independent streak by which someone can say "I built this myself." Unlike Europe, where noble families controlled a lot of land and passed it down to their descendants, much of the land in the US territories—especially as the frontier pushed west—was available to anyone who took control of it.

While the west had been conquered long before the 1980s, the mentality of rugged individualism was still highly ingrained in the American consciousness, especially the white middle class.

Tax Day Protests

Taxes have always been controversial. The US survived without an income tax until after the first World War, but the gradual expansion of federal government and the increasing social responsibility in the western world through the 20th century produced a need for greater taxes. By the presidency of Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), a growing movement of people believed that cutting income taxes and reducing the size of government (nominally the federal government, but in practice government at state, local, and municipal levels too) would lead to another golden age of American exceptionalism.

Because American individual income tax returns must be filed on April 15, April 15 is known as tax day. Throughout the 1990s, many people participated in Tax Day protests against the nature and amount of taxation, as well as the size and scope of government.

Early Tea Party Protests

When the global economic crisis of 2007-2008 struck, the US federal government took several controversial actions. Because the crisis started in large financial institutions, economists and policymakers and bankers all feared that the failure of one institution might have a domino effect, taking down other institutions. In other words, some financial institutions were too big to allow to fail.

Where a normal company might need to restructure its debt and assets through a managed bankruptcy process or other negotiations with its creditors, these banks were too large to manage in such a fashion—and that process would take too long.

Without discussing the ethics of the transactions which produced such systemic weaknesses, the point was obvious to lawmakers: the failure of a bank would have repercussions to everyone in the economy who relied on credit or debt or other banking features. If your company could no longer make payroll, how would you buy groceries or pay your rent? How would your grocery store pay its employees? How would your landlord pay the electricity bill?

The federal government, under George W. Bush, bailed out the banks, lending them money from the Federal Reserve through the US Treasury to keep them solvent long enough to manage all of their bad debts.

To someone who already believed that the government spent too much money on the wrong things and had racked up too much debt, this did not sit well. To compound measures, the effects of failed banks and reduced availability to credit had already started to cause layoffs. From one perspective, you could legitimately ask "Why are the banks getting bailed out, when average people like you and me are losing their jobs?"

Later bills did attempt to produce an economic stimulus package to reduce the pain of unemployment (and keep more people employed), but by that point the argument had become "Why is the government going into debt when the economy is in trouble?" It's not a sensible question, but it's a heartfelt question.

By early 2009, several small protests had started under the Tea Party moniker. The word on the street at that time was that protesters thought that spending and taxes were too high and that elected representatives in Washington weren't listening to individuals.

(Remember that the Boston Tea Party in 1773, from which the Tea Party protests took the name, objected to taxation without effective representation. In other words, a government across the ocean had no qualms about raising taxes on its colonists even while those colonists had no say in their governance.)

From Tea Party Protests to Tea Party Movement

A loose alliance of local protest groups taking the name of the Tea Party soon organized themselves into local political advocacy groups. With editorial support from the popular cable channel Fox News, several groups sprung up across the country.

The protests were the first step.

When the economic turmoil of 2007 and 2008 continued through 2010, it was no surprise that local political groups protesting economic troubles (especially the perceived monetary policy mismanagement of the economic stimulus and bank bailouts) would find themselves at odds with the current administration. In other words, the Tea Party was ripe for Republican groups to come courting, and come courting they did.

Riding the Republican Donkey

Republican primary elections in many states soon had candidates affiliated with the Tea Party: people who talked a good line about smaller government and fiscal conservatism (which resonated with many conservative Republican voters) who were also able to take advantage of anti-government and libertarian rhetoric promoted both locally and nationally. In an environment of high unemployment, it's easy to demonize the government.

The 2010 midterm Congressional elections swept in a large freshman Congressional class associated with the Tea Party. True to their idealistic beginnings, they would brook little compromise. The Tea Party rode into the House on the back of the Republican donkey. Little did the donkey know who really was in charge.

The Co-opting of the Tea Party

For every true believer, there's often a well-financed lobbyist cynically manipulating things behind the scenes. Anti-tax activists such as Grover Norquist (Americans for Tax Reform) and the Koch brothers (Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute) draped their long-held political beliefs in Tea Party rhetoric, funded Tea Party events, and used their foundations, committees, and other political structures to continue their political agendas.

After the 2010 Congressional elections, the warning to non-Tea Party Republicans was clear: follow the movement, or we'll find a Tea Party candidate to defeat you in the primary election. After the Citizens United ruling from the Supreme Court allowed paid but nominally non-affiliated political lobbying during elections without revealing donors, the well-funded groups could use Tea Party candidates (ostensibly still driven by legitimate grass-roots support) to promote their national agendas.

This agenda includes, but is not limited to: repealing the Affordable Care Act, privatizing Social Security, cutting corporate and high-earner taxes, removal of business regulation, expanding defense spending, and sometimes the abolishment of the Federal Reserve and a return to the gold standard.

Who are the Tea Party Today?

Tea Party members today are a loose alliance of libertarians, Republicans, and other groups on the right wing of the US political spectrum. They tend to distrust government at many levels (not just the federal level); popular rallying cries come from the words of Grover Norquist and Ronald Reagan, who wanted to shrink the government to a size where they could drown it in the bathtub.

These Tea Party members tend to do their most political work in primaries and party-specific conventions and gatherings, where they attempt to select the candidates for federal (think Congress) office as well as some state offices. It is as this point where they can apply their political litmus tests: anyone who shows a sign of weakness of principle—compromising with non Tea Party members, for example—should be replaced in the general election.

One might charitably characterize this tendency as principled, while others might equally find it rigid and naïve in its reactionary, uncompromising sense of governance.

Criticism of the Tea Party

Although the Tea Party may have legitimate points about the proper role of government, the irresponsibility of crony capitalism and the concomitant imbalance of bailouts, it suffers from a lopsided and, often, inconsistent philosophical underpinning which treats a strong federal government as simultaneously an incompetent and willfully malicious aggressor in all intra-national social and economic spheres. The Tea Party's desire to reduce nuanced issues to simplistic slogans ("Keep big government away from my Social Security!" comes to mind) has not improved the possibility of democratic involvement in this country.

Where there is room for a legitimate debate in this country about the proper role of government at federal, state, and municipal levels, any movement which refuses to discuss or consider compromise has no solution to offer. A political movement based on a vague lament that "America used to be great, but the government made it worse!" is dangerously close to lamenting some of the positive social trends made in the past half century. Consider, for example, improvements in civil rights and equality. While the country is still far from the utopian ideals expressed by members of the non-violent civil rights movement, even the notion of Separate But Equal seems hopelessly antiquated—not that the Tea Party is inherently racist in intent or actions, but that impugning the power of the federal government in toto ignores the historical reality that only federal action could drag certain states kicking and screaming into a fuller understanding of equal treatment of all citizens under the law.

Where reasonable economists and policymakers may disagree about the proper and efficacious response to economic conditions and how monetary policy may prolong or obviate macroeconomic turmoil, any movement which refuses to consider the nature of a crisis has no solution.

Where reasonable voters may disagree about the responsibility of an elected official to represent the views of the voters above his or her own principles, any movement which enforces a strict litmus test for ideological purity at the primary level will soon find itself doomed to irrelevance.

A real and true Tea Party revolt would welcome a healthy debate like its predecessor—a debate which produced a Constitution which struck a careful balance between a federal government and semi-autonomous states which cooperated as equals. In practice, the Tea Party tends to treat the federal government as something more akin to the British Monarchy circa 1773—an ahistorical aberration which, sadly, both violates the wishes of the founders of America and exacerbates the very real tensions in the US in the early 21st century.