Liberals have responded to the Tea Party movement by reaching a comforting conclusion: that there is no way these guys can possibly be for real. The movement has variously been described as a “front group for the Republican party” and a “media creation”; Paul Krugman has called Tea Party rallies “AstroTurf (fake grass roots) events, manufactured by the usual suspects.”
I can understand why liberals would want to dismiss the Tea Party movement as an inauthentic phenomenon; it would certainly be welcome news if it were. The sentiments on display at Tea Party rallies go beyond run-of-the-mill anti-tax, anti-spending conservatism and into territory that rightly strikes liberals as truly disturbing. Among the signs I saw at an April 15 protest in Washington: “IF IT SOUNDS LIKE MARX AND ACTS LIKE STALIN IT MUST BE OBAMA,” “STOP OBAMA'S BROWNSHIRT INFIL TRAITORS,” and “OBAMA BIN LYIN,” which was accompanied by an illustration of the president looking like a monkey.
But the Tea Party movement is not inauthentic, and—contrary to the impression its rallies give off—it isn’t a fringe faction either. It is a genuine popular movement, one that has managed to unite a number of ideological strains from U.S. history—some recent, some older. These strains can be described as many things, but they cannot be dismissed as passing phenomena. Much as liberals would like to believe otherwise, there is good reason to think the Tea Party movement could exercise considerable influence over our politics in the coming years.
The movement essentially began on February 19, 2009, when CNBC commentator Rick Santelli, speaking from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, let loose against the Obama administration’s plan to help homeowners who could no longer pay their mortgages. “This is America!” Santelli exclaimed. “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbors’ mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” Santelli called for a “Chicago Tea Party” to protest the administration’s plan.
Santelli’s appeal was answered by a small group of bloggers, policy wonks, and Washington politicos who were primarily drawn from the libertarian wing of the conservative movement. They included John O’Hara from the Illinois Policy Institute (who has written a history of the movement, titled A New American Tea Party); Brendan Steinhauser of FreedomWorks, a Washington lobbying group run by former Representative Dick Armey; and blogger Michael Patrick Leahy, a founder of Top Conservatives on Twitter. The initial round of Tea Party protests took place at the end of February in over 30 cities. There were more protests in April, and, by the time of the massive September 12 protest last year, the Tea Party movement had officially arrived as a political force.
Like many American movements, the Tea Parties are not tightly organized from above. They are a network of local groups and national ones (Tea Party Patriots, Tea Party Express, Tea Party Nation), Washington lobbies and quasi-think tanks (FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity), bloggers, and talk-show hosts. There are no national membership lists, but extensive polls done by Quinnipiac, The Winston Group, and Economist/YouGov suggest that the movement commands the active allegiance of between 13 percent and 15 percent of the electorate. That is a formidable number, and, judging from other polls that ask whether someone has a “favorable” view of the Tea Parties, the movement gets a sympathetic hearing from as much as 40 percent of the electorate.
Tea Partiers’ favorite politician is undoubtedly Sarah Palin—according to the Economist/YouGov poll, 71 percent of Tea Partiers think Palin “is more qualified to be president than Barack Obama” (and another 15 percent are “not sure”)—but, more than anyone else, the movement takes its cues from Glenn Beck. Unlike fellow talkers Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, Beck has never been a conventional Republican; he calls himself a conservative rather than a member of the GOP. While Limbaugh has attempted to soft-pedal his personal failings, the baby-faced Beck makes his into a story of redemption. He is, in his own words, an “average, everyday person.” You need to have followed Beck’s conspiratorial meanderings to understand what preoccupies many members of the Tea Party movement. At the Washington demonstration in April, for instance, there were people holding signs attacking Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, two 1960s-era Columbia University sociologists who, Beck claims, were the brains behind both the community group ACORN and Obama’s attempt to destroy capitalism by bankrupting the government through national health care reform.
In the last year, the movement’s focus has shifted from demonstrations to elections. Currently, Tea Party groups are backing Republican Senate candidates in Kentucky, Utah, and Florida, while trying to knock off Democratic Senators Harry Reid in Nevada and Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania. In some places, Tea Party organizations have begun to displace the state GOP. Last month, Action is Brewing, the northern Nevada Tea Party affiliate, hosted a televised debate for the Republican gubernatorial and senatorial candidates. In addition, numerous candidates are running for Congress as Tea Party supporters.
The Tea Parties are the descendants of a number of conservative insurgencies from the past two generations: the anti-tax rebellion of the late ’70s, the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition of the ’80s and ’90s, and Pat Buchanan’s presidential runs. Like the Tea Partiers I saw in Washington—and the picture of the Tea Partiers put forward by the Winston and Quinnipiac polls—these movements have been almost entirely white, disproportionately middle-aged or older, and more male than female (though parts of the Christian right are an exception on this count). A majority of their adherents generally are not college-educated, with incomes in the middle range—attributes that also closely match the Tea Party movement’s demographic profile. (A misleading picture of Tea Partiers as college-educated and affluent came from a New York Times/CBS poll of people who merely “support,” but don’t necessarily have anything to do with, the Tea Party movement. The other polls surveyed people who say they are “part of” the movement.)
Sociologists who have studied these earlier movements describe their followers as coming from the “marginal segments of the middle class.” That’s a sociological, but also a political, fact. These men and women look uneasily upward at corporate CEOs and investment bankers, and downward at low-wage service workers and laborers, many of whom are minorities. And their political outlook is defined by whether they primarily blame those below or above for the social and economic anxieties they feel. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the marginal middle class was the breeding ground for left-wing attacks against Wall Street. For the last half-century, it has nourished right-wing complaints about blacks, illegal immigrants, and the poor.
It isn’t just demography that the Tea Parties have in common with recent conservative movements; it’s also politics. To be sure, some of the original Tea Party organizers were young libertarians, many of whom, like Brendan Steinhauser, voted for Ron Paul in 2008 and have rediscovered Ayn Rand’s ethic of rational selfishness. They remain part of the movement—one sign I saw at the Washington rally read, “WE ARE JOHN GALT,” referring to the hero of Atlas Shrugged—but, as the movement has grown, its adherents have become more conventionally conservative. As Grover Norquist likes to point out, what distinguishes one conservative group from another is not their members’ overall views, but what “moves” them to demonstrate or to vote. The Christian right, for instance, went to the barricades over abortion and gay marriage, yet most members also hold conservative economic views. Likewise, the Tea Partiers have been moved to action by economic issues, but they share the outlook of social conservatives. According to the Economist/YouGov poll, 74 percent of Tea Party members think abortion is “murder,” and 81 percent are against gay marriage. Sixty-three percent are in favor of public school students learning that “the Book of Genesis in the Bible explains how God created the world”; 62 percent think that “the only way to Heaven is through Jesus Christ.” These beliefs are on display at rallies: In Washington, one demonstrator in clerical garb held a sign saying, “GOD HATES TAXES.” Moreover, aside from the followers of Ron Paul, Tea Party members also share the post-September 11 national security views of the GOP. When Tea Partiers were asked to name the “most important issue” to them, terrorism came in third out of ten, behind only the economy and the budget deficit.
If you look at the people who are running as pro-Tea Party candidates, you discover that some of them have simply graduated from one stage of the conservative movement to another. Jason Meade, who is running for Congress in Ohio, was just out of school, working in his father’s business and playing music, when he “returned to the church and left the music world behind.” Now 38, he sees his participation in Tea Party politics as a continuation of his twelve subsequent years in ministry school. “I decided to try and minister in a new way; by trying to be involved in the protection of the freedoms and liberty that God has given us and that have been woven into the fabric of our country,” he wrote on his website. Jason Sager, 36, who is running in a Republican congressional primary northeast of Tampa, got into conservative politics in the wake of September 11. A Navy veteran, he joined a group called Protest Warrior that staged counter-demonstrations at antiwar rallies, and he was a volunteer in George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign. After Obama’s election, he got involved with Glenn Beck’s 912 Project and, then, with the local Tea Parties.
But the Tea Parties’ roots in U.S. history go back much further than the conservative movements of recent decades. The Tea Parties are defined by three general ideas that have played a key role in U.S. politics since the country’s early days. The first is an obsession with decline. This idea, which traces back to the outlook of New England Puritans during the seventeenth century, consists of a belief that a golden age occurred some time ago; that we are now in a period of severe social, economic, or moral decay; that evil forces and individuals are the cause of this situation; that the goal of politics is to restore the earlier period; and that the key to doing so is heeding a special text that can serve as a guidebook for the journey backward. (The main difference between the far right and far left is that the left locates the golden age in the future.) The Puritans were trying to reproduce the circumstances of early Christianity in New England, using the Bible as their guiding text. Their enemies were Catholics and the Church of England, who they believed had corrupted the religion. For the Tea Partiers, the golden age is the time of the Founders, and adherence to the Constitution is the means to restore this period in the face of challenges from secular humanism, radical Islam, and especially socialism.
Beck has been instrumental in sacralizing the Constitution. He has touted the works of the late W. Cleon Skousen, a John Birch Society defender who projected his ultraconservative views back onto the Founding Fathers. In The 5000 Year Leap, which has been reissued with a foreword by Beck, Skousen claimed that the Founders “warned against the ‘welfare state’” and against “the drift toward the collectivist left.”
In Arizona, Tea Party members hand out copies of the Constitution at political meetings the way a missionary group might hand out Bibles. The San Antonio Tea Party group has demanded that politicians sign a “contract with the Constitution.” In speeches, Tea Partiers cite articles and amendments from the Constitution the same way that clerics cite Biblical verses. Speaking at the Lakeland Tea Party rally on tax day, Jason Sager said, “You are now able to see the most pressing issue that faces our nation and our society. Do you know what that issue is? We are now witnessing the fundamental breakdown of the republican form of government that we are guaranteed in Article Four, Section Four of our Constitution.” In typical fashion, Sager did not go on to explain what Article Four, Section Four was. (You can look it up. I had to.)
Just as the Puritans believed Catholics and the Church of England were undermining Christianity, the Tea Partiers have fixated on nefarious individuals and groups—Saul Alinsky, ACORN, and, of course, Obama himself—who they believe are destroying the country. (According to the Economist/YouGov poll, 52 percent of Tea Party members think ACORN stole the 2008 election from John McCain; another 24 percent are still not sure.) “America has let thieves into her home,” writes Beck, “and that nagging in your gut is a final warning that our country is about to be stolen.” Their determination to locate the threat outside the United States accounts for their emphasis on Obama being a socialist, Marxist, communist, or even fascist—all of which are foreign faiths—rather than what he is: a conventional American liberal. It also helps explain the repeated references to Obama’s African father. And it explains why some Tea Partiers continue to believe, in the face of incontrovertible evidence, that Obama was born outside the United States. The Economist/YouGov poll found that 34 percent of Tea Party members think he was not born in the United States, and another 34 percent are not sure.
But how could a movement that cultivates such crazy, conspiratorial views be regarded favorably by as much as 40 percent of the electorate? That is where the Tea Party movement’s second link to early U.S. history comes in. The Tea Partiers may share the Puritans’ fear of decline, but it is what they share with Thomas Jefferson that has far broader appeal: a staunch anti-statism. What began as a sentiment of the left—a rejection of state monopolies—became, after the industrial revolution and the rise of the labor movement, a weapon against progressive reforms. The basic idea—that government is a “necessary evil”—has retained its power, and, when the economy has faltered, Americans have been quick to blame Washington, perhaps even before they looked at Wall Street or big corporations. It happened in the late ’70s under Jimmy Carter and in the early ’90s under George H.W. Bush; and it has happened again during Obama’s first 18 months in office. According to a Pew poll, the percentage of Americans “angry” with government has risen from 10 percent in February 2000 to 21 percent today, while another 56 percent are “frustrated” with government.
Of course, during Franklin Roosevelt’s first term, most voters didn’t blame the incumbent administration for the Great Depression. Roosevelt was able to deflect blame for the depression back onto the Hoover administration and the “economic royalists” of Wall Street and corporate America. But Roosevelt took office at the nadir of the Great Depression, and his policies achieved dramatic improvements in unemployment and economic growth during his first term. Obama took office barely four months after the financial crisis visibly hit, and he has had to preside over growing unemployment.
Simmering economic frustration also accounts for the final historical strain that defines the Tea Parties: They are part of a tradition of producerism that dates to Andrew Jackson. Jacksonian Democrats believed that workers should enjoy the fruits of what they produce and not have to share them with the merchants and bankers who didn’t actually create anything. The Populists of the late nineteenth century invoked this ethic in denouncing the Eastern bankers who held their farms hostage. Producerism also underlay Roosevelt’s broadsides against economic royalists and Bill Clinton’s promise to give priority to those who “work hard and play by the rules.”
During the 1970s, conservatives began invoking producerism to justify their attacks on the welfare state, and it was at the core of the conservative tax revolt. While the Jacksonians and Populists had largely directed their anger upward, conservatives directed their ire at the people below who were beneficiaries of state programs—from the “welfare queens” of the ghetto to the “illegal aliens” of the barrio. Like the attack against “big government,” this conservative producerism has most deeply resonated during economic downturns. And the Tea Parties have clearly built their movement around it.
Producerism was at the heart of Santelli’s rant against government forcing the responsible middle class to subsidize those who bought homes they couldn’t afford. In his history of the Tea Party movement, O’Hara described an America divided between “moochers, big and small, corporate and individual, trampling over themselves with their hands out demanding endless bailouts” and “disgusted, hardworking citizens getting sick of being played for chumps and punished for practicing personal responsibility.” The same theme recurs in the Tea Partiers’ rejection of liberal legislation. Beck dismissed Obama’s health care reform plan as “good old socialism ... raping the pocketbooks of the rich to give to the poor.” Speaking to cheers at the April 15 rally in Washington, Armey denounced the progressive income tax in the same terms. “I can’t steal your money and give it to this guy,” he declared. “Therefore, I shouldn’t use the power of the state to steal your money and give it to this guy.”
The Tea Parties are not managed by the Republican National Committee, and they are not really a wing of the GOP. It is telling that Beck devoted his February speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference to bashing Republicans—and that, in a survey of 50 Tea Party leaders, the Sam Adams Alliance found that 28 percent identify themselves as Independents and 11 percent as Tea Party members rather than Republicans. Still, the Tea Partiers’ political objective is clearly to push the GOP to the right. They agitated last summer for a Republican party-line vote against health care reform and are now arguing that states have a constitutional right to refuse to comply with it. They have been calling the offices of Republican senators to demand that they oppose a bipartisan compromise on financial regulatory reform. In South Carolina, they have attacked Senator Lindsey Graham, who is also a favorite Beck target, for backing a cap-and-trade bill. The Arizona Tea Party pressured Governor Jan Brewer to sign the now-infamous bill targeting illegal immigrants. And Tea Party Nation has issued a “Red Alert” to prevent Congress from adopting “amnesty” legislation.
If the GOP wins back at least one house of Congress in November, the Tea Parties will be able to claim victory and demand a say in Republican congressional policies. That could lead to a replay of the Newt Gingrich Congress of 1995-1996, from which the country was lucky to escape relatively unscathed. But, beyond this, it’s hard to say what will become of the movement. If the economy improves in a significant way next year, it is likely to fade. That is what happened to the tax revolt, which peaked from 1978 to 1982 and then subsided. But, if the economy limps along—say, in the manner of Japan over the last 15 years—then the Tea Parties will likely remain strong, and may even become a bigger force in U.S. politics than they are now.
For all of its similarities to previous insurgencies, the Tea Party movement differs in one key respect from the most prominent conservative movement of recent years, the Christian right: The Tea Parties do not have the same built-in impediments to growth. The Christian right looked like it was going to expand in the early ’90s, but it ran up against the limit of its politics, which were grounded ultimately in an esoteric theology and a network of churches. If it strayed too far from the implications of that theology, it risked splitting its membership. But, if it articulated it—as Pat Robertson and others did at various inopportune moments—then it risked alienating the bulk of Americans. The Tea Parties do not have the same problem. They have their own crazy conspiracy theories, but even the wackiest Tea Partiers wouldn’t demand that a candidate seeking their endorsement agree that ACORN fixed the election or that Obama is foreign-born. And their core appeal on government and spending will continue to resonate as long as the economy sputters. None of this is what liberals want to hear, but we might as well face reality: The Tea Party movement—firmly grounded in a number of durable U.S. political traditions and well-positioned for a time of economic uncertainty—could be around for a while.
John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic.