Examining The Tea Party Movement: An Old American Tradition, A New Phenomenon

By Andrew Winnick

When one talks about the Tea Party Movement, it is essential to recognize that there are three separate layers or elements of this new political phenomenon which has emerged since 2008-2009.  However, before examining this structure, it is important to understand the origins of the movement.

The History of Political Populism and Libertarianism in America

Obviously, the term “Tea Party” is a reference to the pre-revolutionary Boston Tea Party in 1773 in which American colonials boarded British ships and threw bundles of tea overboard to protest the tea taxes imposed by the British government.   
More significantly, it is important to understand that, from the dawn of American history, government and the dominant political parties, with great regularity, have had to deal with the “intrusion” of populist movements seeking to “confront the establishment” and the major political parties.  This strong cultural current is deeply embedded in the American psyche.  Many argue that it flows directly from the legends and mythologies, as well as from the facts, surrounding the American Revolution.  Many Americans simply feel entitled to challenge established social and political forces.

Certainly, the writers of the U.S. Constitution were well aware of this current, and, one could argue, were deeply afraid of it.  This is seen in such aspects of the U.S. Constitution as the fact that senators were to be chosen, not by direct election of the people of a state, but by state legislatures, and that the President and Vice President were not to be elected by direct election of the people, but by members of an Electoral College chosen by the states (which is how G. W. Bush became president even though Al Gore received hundreds of thousands more votes).  It is also relevant that initially the right to vote was not only withheld from slaves, “Indians” and women, but was also denied to white males who did not own property.  Farm or industrial workers who did not own “real” property (a house, a farm), could not vote.  This anti-democratic current is also seen in the fact that American elections are always held on Tuesday workdays, not weekends.  One can well argue that the intent of all the barriers placed between the common people and political power was to prevent the “rabble” from having a direct influence on government.

But in response to these structures and to the constant presence of various elite groups, so-called “people’s parties”, populist parties and movements, have sprung up regularly in American history.  One of the earliest was the Whiskey Rebellion (about a tax on liquor) in 1790, during the presidency of George Washington.  In 1890, there emerged the People’s Party based primarily on poor, white cotton farmers in the South and Texas and wheat farmers in Kansas and Nebraska.  In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt split from the Republican Party, and led the Progressive Party in the presidential election, and Progressive Party candidates also ran in 21 governor’s and 200 Congressional races.  Few won, but the movement continued to run candidates until 1918 when it rejoined the Republican Party.  Other populist movements/parties occur with great regularity in American history, including the Vietnam Anti-War Movement within the Democratic Party in the 1960’s, about which more will be said below. Many focused on regional issues, while some assumed a national presence.  Some formed into “Third Parties” to compete on a national basis against the established two major parties.  Others constituted themselves as movements or factions within one of the established parties, seeking to bend that party to the will of the populist movement. In most cases, these third parties or movements were short-lived, typically dissipating within an election cycle or two.

Another strain of populism is the American libertarian movement. American libertarianism has its roots in the philosophy of the late-Enlightenment period and the term was first used in England in 1789.  Political movements and philosophies that emerged in France in the 1880’s and 1890’s built upon this tradition.  The modern American variant focuses on the commonly used words ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’.  It argues that government is not the grantor nor the protector of such rights, but is the primary violator of these rights.  It views government “intrusion” into the lives of people and their businesses as the greatest danger to liberty and freedom.  Efforts to levy taxes, regulate business, restrict the “right to bear arms” are all held to be expressions of this danger.  So-called free-market libertarianism, an adherence to laissez-faire capitalism, is an integral part of this movement.  Polls in 2006 indicated that about 15% of Americans considered themselves libertarians.  The Libertarian Party was formed in 1971 and has run candidates in every presidential election since.  It remains the third largest, formally structured political party in the U.S.  When Republican President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980’s said that “government was not the solution, government was the problem,” and began referring to “the government” instead of to “our government,” he was endorsing this belief, despite the fact that he was the head of government.

It was hardly a surprise that a number of people who were outspoken libertarians cloaked themselves in the mantle of the Tea Party Movement in 2010.  The best known example was Rand Paul, who was elected to the U.S. Senate for Kentucky with Tea Party Movement support. His father, Ron Paul, has been a Congressman since 1976 and has the most conservative voting record of any member of Congress since 1937.  In 1988, Ron Paul ran for president on the Libertarian party ticket, but in 2008, he ran in Republican presidential primary elections.

The Tea Party Movement is explicitly a self-described libertarian and populist movement. The essential thing to take away from this brief historical perspective is that the Tea Party Movement is quintessentially a traditional American phenomenon and is not at all an aberration.

The Structure of the Tea Party Movement – Three Levels

Level One - Most of the American public and the vast majority of the media restrict their attention to the public face of the Tea Party Movement.  They see the large crowds rallying and demonstrating around the nation for different causes – to oppose the health care reform efforts of the Obama Administration, to support some candidate for public office, to pressure Congress to reduce government spending and the size of both federal and state government, to encourage free enterprise capitalism that does not have to suffer the interference of government regulation, to support state Governors who are trying to take collective bargaining rights away from public employees.  These local groups are real, and exist now in every state in the U.S., though they are concentrated in the Midwest and South. One obviously cannot understand the Tea Party Movement without further studying these local groups, but first, let us identify the other levels of this movement.

Level Two - Above these local groups are five national organizations which work to coordinate and train local activists, and help them to network and focus on national issues. These groups work by proving funds, convening conventions, sending out and training staff, and establishing communication networks. 

These five groups are:

  • The Tea Party Express, led by Sal Russo and funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, with Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann (Congresswoman from Minnesota) as spokespeople
  • The Tea Party Nation Corporation, organized by Judson Phillips of Tennessee in 2009, which sponsored the National Tea Party Convention in February 2010, and which was reportedly able to pay Sarah Palin $100,000 to give the keynote speech
  • The Tea Party Patriots, which is self-described as “a national grassroots organization that provides logistical, educational, networking and other types of support to over 1,000 community based tea party groups.”  One report indicates that, in fact, it has more than 2,800 local affiliates.
  • The National Tea Party Coalition, which is apparently a loose linking of several dozen local Tea Party groups and which talks about encouraging “The Tea Party Ecosystem” of individuals and local organizations united in working toward “fiscal responsibility and limited government”
  • The National Tea Party Federation, which lists on its website 85 member and affiliate groups and which states that it was established to create a unified message and media response among key leadership and their affiliates

There is a great deal of overlap among these five organizations.

These five national groups give the Tea Party Movement a more national image and impact. For example, following President Obama’s constitutionally mandated State of the Union address to Congress in February 2011, there was an official (and traditional, but not constitutionally mandated) response by Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, chair of the House Budget Committee.  But this year, there was also a response by Michele Bachmann, that was self-described as the official Tea Party Movement’s response.  While every major TV network carried both Obama’s address and that by Ryan, only CNN also carried the Bachmann response and labeled it as “official,” despite the objections of some of their own commentators on-air.  Bachmann and the Tea Party Express succeeded in giving their movement a moment of national impact.

Another example is the success of the Americans For Prosperity (AFP) group (discussed just below), and its leader, Tim Phillips, to organize, fund and bus into Madison, Wisconsin hundreds of Tea Party Movement activists from around Wisconsin and nearby states. The goal was to mount counter-demonstrations against trade union members and supporters, who were demonstrating to block a recently elected Tea Party governor who successfully stripped public employees of their collective bargaining rights.  Without AFP money and organizing, this certainly would not have happened. The goal was to gain for the Tea Party Movement some portion of the vast attention the national media were giving to the Wisconsin situation – one of the first major, successful efforts to destroy unions since Ronald Reagan successfully decertified the air traffic controllers union in 1981.

Level Three – Standing above and behind these five national groups and the hundreds, maybe thousands of local organizations, there is a less visible and less talked-about group of extremely wealthy individuals and their very well-connected political operatives.  It is these individuals and organizations who have created and funded the national Tea Party Movement structures and who manipulate and channel the efforts of the local groups, either via one or more of the five Level Two groups listed above, or by directly providing coordination, strategies and vast sums of money.

Most important among these are:

  • FreedomWorks, a split-off from a group established by the billionaire Koch brothers, David and Charles, was originally led by Dick Armey, Jack Kemp and C. Boyden Gray, all major Republican Party leaders.  FreedomWorks, still funded by the Koch brothers and led by Armey, runs training camps for Tea Party Movement activists and for those supporting candidates endorsed by that Movement. (It also supports some more establishment conservatives who have not gained, or maybe even sought, Tea Party endorsement.)
  • Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and its Foundation, both reportedly funded by the Koch brother’s, claim to coordinate a network of “1.5 million citizen activists in all 50 states, with 31 state chapter organizations.”  Tim Phillips, president of both AFP and the AFP Foundation, claims to have received donations from “more than 80,000 Americans” and talks about “combining ‘best-in-class’ capabilities built at the national level with local knowledge from…on-the-ground armies (of Tea Party Movement activists)….”  Tim Phillips apparently prides himself on being the best grassroots organizer in the U.S. today. 
  • American Crossroads and Crossroads-GPS were organized by Karl Rove (former Chief of Staff to President G. W. Bush) and Ed Gillespie (former Republican Party Chairman). These groups have had to admit to spending tens of millions of dollars in support of the most conservative Tea Party Movement candidates in 2010 and are estimated to have spent $100’s of millions. It is strongly suspected that they have also funded some of the Level Two national Tea Party organizations.

Together, these organizations help coordinate the political efforts of some of the most powerful corporations in the U.S. and represent the interests of many of the elite, wealthiest .01% of American families (which is less than 11,500 families, who control in excess of 5 times the wealth of the bottom 80% combined).   Some of these wealthy individuals are quite activist themselves.  These political operatives and wealthy individuals helped to organize, fund and even create some of the Level Two groups.  They saw the potential political power in the spontaneous actions of the local, libertarian, populist groups as they reacted to what they had been told was true, especially about the health care reform effort (most of which was totally fabricated by the rightwing media). These operatives then channeled and focused these “grassroots” groups by providing money and coordination to co-opt their emotional and ideological concerns in order to gain support for issues identified by the operatives themselves as serving the interests of their corporate and elite clients.

There are, of course, other, better known and long established corporate groups, such as the National Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable (an association of the CEOs of major U.S. corporations), that are also very politically active.  The former apparently funneled more that $100 million in support of conservative candidates in the 2010 elections.  However, these groups have not publicly linked themselves to the Tea Party Movement.

The Origins of the Term “Tea Party” Movement

The use of the term Tea Party Movement to describe the efforts that sprung up in 2009 by people opposed to the Obama Administration’s health care reform effort, and Obama himself as President, was largely a creation of two media spokesmen: Rush Limbaugh, a rightwing radio commentator and Glenn Beck, a Fox TV news commentator.  Some argue that the originator of the term was Sal Russo of the conservative political consulting firm Russo, March and Rogers, who founded the Tea Party Express group via the firm’s political action committee, Our Country Deserves Better.  The term ‘Tea Party Express’ was also applied by Russo to his touring bus of activists that traveled around the nation sponsoring anti-health care reform and anti-Obama rallies. 

Other protest rallies occurred early in 2009 opposing the bank “bailout” effort (of the Bush Administration) and opposing the economic stimulus law signed by Obama within days of assuming office in February 2009. Some of those protestors dressed in colonial-style hats and coats and held signs talking about too much spending and taxes.  Their garb may have given the cue to the media and Russo to employ the term ‘Tea Party Movement’.

One of the symbols often adopted by populist movements in the U.S. is the Gadsden flag, a yellow field upon which is a coiled rattlesnake with a tail of 13 rattles, under which is written Don’t Tread On Me.  It was the first flag of the U.S. Marine Corps, carried by them in 1775 when they intercepted British ships carrying war supplies to aid the fight against the colonials.  This flag appeared at many of the early 2009 rallies, and also suggested the colonial period and the revolutionary Tea Party theme.

Who Are the Tea Party Movement’s Members and/or Supporters?

This is a difficult question to answer with precision.  Since the movement is splintered into a variety of organizational structures, both national and local, there does not exist any comprehensive structure with members registered in a formal, or publicly available manner.  We must rely upon efforts by well-established American polling agencies, in which questions are asked about (1) whether the individual maintains an affiliation to some part of the Tea Party Movement, or (2) whether the person simply supports the movement in an ideological sense. A large numbers of such surveys are available.

It is interesting to note that the demographics do not tend to paint the image that many people on the U.S. political left have hypothesized, namely that the Tea Party Movement is typically composed of white working class males with lower middle class incomes and no education beyond high school.  In fact, while the Tea Party Movement activists and supporters do tend to be more white (about 80%, compared to 75% in the population as a whole, which means that about 1 in 5 supporters is not white) and male (55% male to 45% female, compared to 49% male in the general population), they also tend to be a bit wealthier and older than average.  Their educational level, according to a Gallup poll, pretty much mirrors or slightly exceeds that of the nation as a whole, with only about 34% having no college education at all.  A CNN poll indicated that nearly 75% of Tea Party Movement supporters attended at least some college.  Geographically, while there is a higher proportion in the South and Midwest, than in the Western or Eastern states, significant support exists across the entire nation.  In studies that have differentiated between active Tea Party Movement supporters and those who merely tend to agree with what they think of as the Tea Party Movement’s perspective, the former are typically put at about 10% to 12% of the U.S. adult population, while the latter is estimated at an additional 22% to 24%.  Thus, it seems likely that the Tea Party Movement is supported by 32% to 36% of adult Americans, about 1 in 3.   If one were to describe the typical Tea Party supporter, the person would be white, male, older than 45, married, a bit wealthier and better educated than average and likely to live in the Midwest or South, but with significant representation across the nation. The key point is that at this level of support, this cannot be considered a fringe movement.

What Are the Key Ideological Elements Characteristic of the Tea Party Movement?

As described earlier, the fundamental undercurrent within Level One of the Tea Party Movement may best be described as libertarian and quite conservative. The tone expressed by the Don’t Tread On Me flag captures this spirit.  The common sentiments that are expressed over and over are keep the government out of my life, minimize government regulations, let the free market work, promote free enterprise (capitalism), reduce the size of government, cut taxes.

One of the first and still powerful catalysts for this entire movement was the Obama Administration’s successful push for healthcare reform.  Ironically, most Americans, and even many in the Tea Party Movement, hate the power and role of the health insurance industry and its often apparently arbitrary, but in fact cost/profit driven, decisions as to which care will be paid for and which not.  And everyone resents the constantly increasing costs of health care.  But the idea of the government mandating that everyone must have health insurance, or else pay a penalty to the government, drives the Tea Party Movement supporters absolutely crazy.  They will not listen to arguments that without a mandate and a large pool of people, it is not possible to force the insurance industry to accept everyone without regard to prior conditions and without a surcharge for those with existing health problems.  They will not listen to the fact that the plan includes provisions for the government to subsidize the poor and most of the middle class to help them afford the newly mandated health insurance premiums.  They simply will not accept the idea of being forced to have coverage.  While many resent the arbitrary power of the health insurance industry, they are furious that it will be the government that will make the new rules.  Their resentment of government far outweighs their anger at industry.

Tea Party Movement supporters also were furious at the banks and the other financial institutions that caused the financial crisis and what has come to be called the Great Recession.  But, at the same time, they deeply resented the fact that the government, first under Bush, and then under Obama, committed hundreds of billions of “their” dollars to “bail out” the banks and then to “stimulate” the economy.  For Tea Party Movement supporters, the fact that the dire consequences of financial collapse were avoided and that the so-called bailout was conducted so that the government is on course to get every penny back is irrelevant. The banks were bailed out by government and their managers are again getting huge bonuses, while unemployment remains too high – so they judge the program a mistake. The fact that Obama’s economic stimulus program largely worked, the collapsing economy was turned around, and 800,000 job losses per month was reversed to the point where jobs have been added every month for almost two years, is irrelevant. To Tea Party Movement supporters this all amounted to ineffective, socialistic government intrusion that has resulted in the largest government fiscal deficits (almost 10%) since World War II and a national debt that is approaching 90% of GDP.  This feeds into a general conviction that government is simply too big and intrusive, spending is out of control, and taxes are too high (even though, in fact, taxes are far lower than during the Reagan period).  Overall, surveys find that up to an amazing 99% of Tea Party Movement supporters express concern with the economy and with the government’s economic policies.

At the same time, most Tea Party Movement supporters do not support cutting the Social Security or Medicare programs for the elderly.  During the health care debate, one of the ironic cries was “keep the government’s hands off my Medicare” – disregarding the reality that Medicare is a government program. This contradiction does not seem to cause discomfort. On the other hand, reflecting their economic status, Tea Party Movement supporters are quite willing to cut Medicaid  (a health insurance program for the poor), unemployment compensation, and a host of other programs that serve as the “social safety net.”

Tea Party Movement supporters overwhelmingly do not believe that human behavior is causing climate change, or that climate change/global warming is a serious problem at all.  Hence, they adamantly oppose government attempts to regulate emissions via a “Cap and Trade” system or any other program.  Again, the presentation of scientific arguments is not persuasive.  Just keep the government away from regulating industry or telling us what type of cars we should drive, are their cries.

There is mixed evidence pertaining to the ideological position of the Tea Party Movement with regard to social issues.  Tea Party supporters tend to oppose illegal immigration and support strong anti-immigrant laws. They tend to be more likely to question Obama’s religion (whether he is secretly a Muslim) and whether he was born in the U.S. than the general population.  They are generally not supportive of so-called gay issues, especially gay marriage, but this is not a critical concern for them. There have been charges that elements of the movement display racist beliefs. This comes through most often when they argue against the need for programs to provide for the poor (hinting that the poor are mostly Black or Hispanic, which is not true) or when they talk about immigrants.  While many of these social issues are core concerns for the broader conservative movement, these social issues are not the essential ideological elements that are important to the Tea Party Movement, and they are not the focus of their organizing efforts.  The core beliefs of the Tea Party Movement are associated with reducing the size, spending, and reach of government. This movement is more libertarian in focus than traditionally conservative.

Is the Tea Party Movement an Effort to Spawn a New Political Party?

The answer is clearly no.  In virtually every state and local area where this movement has emerged and self-identified with this title, it has viewed itself as an insurrectionist effort within the Republican Party. The rhetoric is consistently focused on the fact that the established Republican Party lost its way and “betrayed its principles” and the goals of the Tea Party Movement activists.  They point to the unfunded expenditures of the Bush Administration and to the failure of Republicans in Congress to control government spending and reduce taxes.  The perceived failure of the Congressional Republican caucus to stop the passage of Obama’s programs was the final straw.  Tea Party Movement activists believe that the Democratic Party is hopelessly too liberal, too progressive, even socialistic, and therefore not worth bothering with. They clearly do not have any desire, at least as of this writing, to undertake the very difficult task of organizing, funding, registering and getting recognition for a new party. Instead, they intend to take over, dominate and re-direct the Republican Party. 
This type of effort is quite traditional in American politics. For example, the Anti-Vietnam War activists in the 1960s and early 1970s attempted to achieve the goal of dominating the Democratic Party and they, too, saw “their” party as having gone astray and needing to be re-directed.  They did not bother trying to influence the Republican Party which they considered a hopeless task.  So it has been in the case of the Tea Party Movement.

Their entire effort in the 2010 Congressional elections was to run candidates within the Republican Party primary (preliminary) elections to determine who would run against the Democratic Party candidate in the general election.  In some cases, they recruited and ran very conservative and/or libertarian candidates against established Republicans whom the Tea Party Movement considered too moderate, or just ineffective.  In other cases, they decided to support a candidate, such as Rand Paul, who had already decided to run and who shared their ideology.  In many cases, more established Republicans who “saw the writing on the wall,” sought out their local Tea Party Movement activists and organizations, pledging their support for the Movement’s principles in exchange for campaign support.

How Successful has the Tea Party Movement Been and What is Its Likely Future

Since it began in late 2008, the impact of this movement on American politics has been remarkable in Congressional and Senate electoral campaigns from coast to coast.  This movement supported candidates in 138 Congressional races.  Best estimates are that more than half of the 87 new members of the House of Representatives (a body of 435 people, all of whom have to run every two years) count themselves as Tea Party Movement supporters.  Forty-nine Representatives joined the Tea Party caucus (led by Michele Bachmann) in the House.  In the U.S. Senate, 13 Tea Party Movement candidates defeated establishment Republicans in primary elections and 7 went on to defeat Democrats and now serve in the Senate, where they will be for at least six years.  Interestingly, some of the 6 that lost did so against Democrats considered easily beatable by established Republicans, most notably in Maryland and Nevada. In those cases, libertarian views were rejected and helped elect weak Democrats. 

Local Tea Party Movement groups, supported and coordinated by Level Two and Three national organizations, have continued to agitate and demonstrate around their issues.  Recently, they have supported efforts to remove collective bargaining rights from public sector employees on the state level, on the false premise that these employees “caused” government’s fiscal problems. In fact, the motivation of the Level Two and Three organizations is to weaken the Democratic Party, which depends on these unions, prior to the 2012 elections.
What does the future hold for the Tea Party Movement?  Where is it likely to go from here?  It is important to note that the local and regional structures of the Tea Party Movement in 2010 were necessary to mirror the local Congressional District (House of Representatives) and State-wide U.S. Senate electoral battles.  But in November 2012, there will be a national presidential election with Barack Obama as the Democratic Party’s candidate.  As the Republican Party moves to identify its candidate to oppose Obama, there will be electoral “primary” battles in most states.  It is to be expected that the Tea Party Movement will participate in most of these and will attempt to identify its own preferred candidate(s) perhaps to the consternation of the more established Republican Party.  If one of the Tea Party’s favorites emerges as the Republican choice, the Tea Party Movement will quickly attempt to have both a national and state organizational presence to provide support.  Given that American presidential elections are not decided by the national vote totals, but rather by state-by-state majorities (the Electoral College votes explained earlier) – the Tea Party Movement’s regional structure that was so relevant in 2010 Senate and Congressional races, will again be important.

If, on the other hand, the Republican Party chooses a candidate that is not acceptable to most Tea Party Movement activists, then we will see a moment of truth.  Do these activists support the Republican candidate as the best available route to defeating Obama, whom they hate as a socialist  – or do they attempt to organize a Third Party structure to oppose both established candidates?  In 1968, this was exactly the plight of the Anti-Vietnam War movement.  Their efforts to nominate Eugene McCarthy were thwarted at the Democratic Party’s Chicago convention, and the party nominated Hubert Humphrey instead.  Humphrey was a “good and committed liberal,” but he had refused to break with Lyndon Johnson on the issue of the war.  So, in state after state, including a major effort in California, attempts were made to run McCarthy as an independent candidate (there being no time to start and register a new official political party).  While this effort was thwarted in most states, it drained a great deal of energy from the Humphrey campaign and greatly weakened his attraction.  Some claim that the result was Richard Nixon’s victory.

It remains to be seen what the Tea Party Movement activists will do in 2012 if they do not get a Republican presidential candidate of their choosing.  It is far too early to predict, but it will be rather telling to watch.