Though the origins of the Tea Party are difficult to discern, from the failed 2008 Republican nomination campaign of Ron Paul, to a Florida resident organising a demonstration via Facebook, by early 2009 a populist, grassroots movement had gained ground in American under the banner of “fiscal responsibility” and “smaller government”.
The Tea Party movement drew from the ranks of conservatives, Republicans, libertarians, constitutionalists, Christians and various other political and religious stripes. Men and women, disaffected, anxious and fearful of events about them joined together, with touchstone issues ranging from disillusionment with the political process to immigration to the erosion of individual liberty.
Though ill-defined, hazy and nebulous, the Tea Party was the latest incarnation of populist tradition stretching back more than a century, from the People’s Party to the Temperance Movement to the Moral Majority – the expression of a desire for a rebirth, a new way or a political third party.
Yet like its populist forebears, the Tea Party became different things to different people. For one follower it was a buttress against government expansion, to another a defender of the nation’s border, to another it was a flag bearer for social issues, from homosexuality to abortion.
The Tea Party’s dramatic and rapid growth coincided with the election of Barack Obama, America’s first black president, which critics took as an indication of the movement’s true character. Fiscal responsibility may be the watchword, opponents of the Tea Party argued, but this was really a movement fuelled by anxieties about race.
Yet to dismiss the Tea Party as a political entity defined or motivated by questions of race alone is to miss the swell of economic, religious, social and historic waves crashing up and around the American people at the time. The Tea Party certainly is about race, but it is also about so much more…
The 2008 financial crash
A month before the inauguration of Barack Obama in January 2009, outgoing President George Bush gave an interview to CNN in which he explained the passing of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act (October 2008) as the abandonment of “free-market principles to save the free-market system”, a move he said was necessary to ensure “the economy doesn’t collapse.”
The Act was designed to prop up America’s ailing financial institutions in the face of economic turmoil, or “bailout Wall Street”, as it became known.
In February the following year, Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a stimulus package offering a mix of spending and tax cuts in the hope of further containing the economic maelstrom.
That same month, CNBC’s Rick Santelli gave an impassioned rant on the woes of economic stimulus, calling for “a Chicago Tea Party in July”. The video went viral and is now often ascribed as a tipping point in the formation of the Tea Party as a national movement.
The content of his now-famous clip caught the prevailing mood post the passing of the stimulus package. “The government is promoting bad behaviour,” said Santelli, stood on the trading room floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange. He then proposed an online referendum “to see if we want to subsidise the losers mortgages or would we like to buy houses, buy cars and foreclosure and give them to people who might actually prosper down the road”.
The benefits of the stimulus aside (argument continues as to whether its passing prevented recession becoming depression), the ideological battle lines for the next four years had now been drawn. These were not social and these were not racial; they were economic, as free market capitalism bumped up against bailouts, regulation and government intervention.
That it was unfettered and unregulated markets that had created the housing bubble and its subsequent collapse that led to the 2008 stimulus was an irony seemingly lost on Santelli. Regardless, the bubble burst, leading to a downturn in US property prices, which threatened global institutions worldwide. The consequent collapse of the stock market and decrease in international trade forced global governments to act, with Bush’s Economic Stabilization Act, which included the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), and Obama’s Recovery and Reinvestment Act ploughing more than $1trillion combined into the beleaguered US economy.
According to former U.S. Representative Dick Armey, currently co-chairman of Freedomworks, a Washington-based conservative organisation with close ties to the Tea Party, it was Bush-era policies which propelled the movement to national prominence, arguing that: “The Government expansion during President George W Bush’s reign provided the fuel. And it was his Wall Street bailout that ignited the firestorm we see today.” For Armey, Obama had simply “doubled down on the bad policies of the Bush administration”, and in doing so had poured “gasoline on a bush fire”.
Amid the foreclosures, rising unemployment and declining consumer spending, rallies began to spread across the country, under the banner of the Gadsden Flag. Most boasted a few hundred protesters; some in the bigger cities attracted thousands, though debate raged in the media as to the exact numbers.
One of the biggest rallies of 2009 was held in April in Atlanta, part of a National Tax Day event, with protests reported across hundreds of major cities. Numbers for the events were difficult to quantify, exemplified by debate over the Atlanta rally. Fox News reported a crowd of between 15,000 and 20,000. Others put the number more at 7,500.
Common to all the rallies was a voicing of economic concerns, whether that was manifest in opposition to healthcare, the bailout or the perceived increasing size of government (hence spending), usually sub-vocalised as a rant against the evils of “socialism”. Estimates of the total number of people protesting that day run from anywhere from 200,000 to 350,000. Regardless, the Tea Party as a national movement, albeit disjointed, devoid of leadership or, as the BBC’s Mark Mardell put it, “hydra-headed”, had arrived.
In September 2009, the Tea Party Express, a bus convoy of activists, snaked its way across the American heartland, stopping at more than 30 cities to spread its six-principled message: “no more bailouts, reduce the size and intrusiveness of government, stop raising our taxes, repeal Obamacare, cease out-of-control spending and bring back American prosperity.”
A second convoy set off a month later with a mission to “highlight some of the worst offenders in Congress who have voted for higher spending, higher taxes, and government intervention in the lives of American families and businesses.”
The impact of the movement at the ballot box was first registered at the 2010 mid-term elections, with a number of Tea Party-backed candidates winning office, most notably Rand Paul, son of Ron Paul, who beat Trey Grayson in a GOP Senate primary in Kentucky.
Despite victories that propelled the Republicans to a majority in the House of Representatives, they missed out on a majority in the Senate, often with Tea Party-backed candidates beating establishment Republicans for the nomination only to lose the election to the Democratic candidate. It remains speculation as to whether the establishment Republicans would have fared better than the Tea Party-backed candidates against their Democratic counterparts.
Still, the mid-terms probably represented the high-point in Tea Party support amongst Americans, with a Gallup poll putting support at around 30 per cent. By August 2011, following the debacle of the debt ceiling crisis, that figure had dropped to 25 per cent, while opposition to the Tea Party had increased with “more Americans holding intensely negative feelings toward the movement than intensely positive feelings”.
Implacable demands from Tea Party-backed Republicans during the debt ceiling debate, most notably Junior Senator Jim De Mint, had led to a game of political brinkmanship that almost cost the United States its AAA credit rating. During the crisis, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner outlined the danger of not increasing the debt: “failure to raise the limit would precipitate a default by the United States. Default would effectively impose a significant and long-lasting tax on all Americans and all American businesses and could lead to the loss of millions of American jobs. Even a very short-term or limited default would have catastrophic economic consequences that would last for decades.”
For a movement that crowed “fiscal responsibility” as a mantra, holding the US economy hostage on a matter of ideological purity was perhaps the least fiscally responsible route available. However, the power of the Tea Party, this strange grassroots activist movement that had gained popularity n a platform of debt reduction, had now been displayed, and at Washington’s top table.
Healthcare as a rally point
On January 4, 2012, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann gave a speech suspending her campaign for the Republican nomination, having won only 5 per cent of the caucus vote in Iowa, her home state. Reflecting on her run for the nomination, she said:
“On the evening of March 21, 2010, that was the evening that Obamacare was passed… that day served as the inspiration for my run for the presidency of the United States because I believed firmly that what the congress had done and what President Obama had done in passing Obamacare endangered the very survival of the United States of America, our Republic because I knew it was my obligation to ensure that President Obama’s programme of socialised medicine was stopped before it became fully implemented.”
The 2009 health care debate, culminating in President Obama’s September address to a joint session of congress, outlining the reform of public and private health insurance and the subsequent passing of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, is one of the defining moments of the 44th presidency (so far).
Along with the passing of the Wall Street bailout and the stimulus package, healthcare reform worked to galvanise an already vociferous opposition, particularly among the grassroots Tea Partiers, who now had another tangible legislative totem against which to rally.
In his congressional speech on healthcare, Obama pitched the debate as a moral choice. Quoting a letter from the recently deceased Ted Kennedy, himself a long-term proponent of healthcare reform, Obama argued: “What we face… is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”
Notions of social justice have long been anathema to the free market ideals of the GOP, and while South Carolina Republican Representative Joe Wilson’s outburst (“You lie!”) perhaps caught the mood of opposition (albeit in response to rumours that illegal immigrants would receive insurance), there were also some extremely persuasive legal arguments that said the Act was unconstitutional.
Central to Obama’s reform was what became known as the “insurance mandate”, which requires every American citizen to buy and maintain health-care coverage by 2014. But could the government compel its citizens to buy insurance and remain within the parameters of the constitution? The debate continues yet regardless of the outcome, opposition to the bill was no longer just ideological but legal, giving further impetus to the Tea Party and their message.
Another indicator of the importance of the healthcare bill was highlighted by the election of Scott Brown, the Republican candidate who won the 2010 special election to succeed U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts. Despite a record not attuned to the social conservatism – Brown is pro-choice and unopposed to gay marriage (Boris Shor of the University of Chicago called Brown a “liberal Republican who is to be found to the left of [his opponent] Dede Scozzafava”) – the movement still backed him due to his vocal opposition to Obamacare.
Arguably this was a marriage of convenience, with Brown benefitting from the Tea Party as much as the Tea Party thought they would benefit from Brown’s election. However, that the movement was willing to be ideologically flexible on social issues as long as the candidate stood firm on healthcare points to the importance of the Affordable Care Act’s repeal within Tea Party ranks.
During the 2012 Republican nomination process, Michele Bachmann was not the only candidate to run on a platform of repeal. “If elected president on my first day in office I will grant a waiver for all fifty states for Obamacare,” Mitt Romney told the audience at the New Hampshire Republican presidential nomination debate in June 2011.
Similar sentiments were expressed by the other candidates. To make this sop to the political right, Romney was forced to contort his record and by doing so opened himself up to charges of political expediency from his rivals. However repeal of Obamacare, for the majority of Tea Party supporters, remains a central, unalterable goal. As such, even Romney, the architect of the Massachusetts’ healthcare plan on which Obamacare was based, had little option but to abandon his state-based achievement in favour of the rabid anti-government message now demanded by the Tea Party movement.
The Tea Party and racism
It is less than fifty years, little more than a generation, since the passing of the Civil Rights Act, and despite steadily changing attitudes, the issue of race pervades. In short, the US remains a nation divided by colour.
An oft-heard criticism of the Tea Party is that it is racist in character. There has been plenty of anecdotal evidence that gives credence to this view, from signs calling the president a “half breed Muslim” or demanding he be “traded” back to Kenya, to accusations by politicians and lawmakers of hearing or being called the word “nigger” at a protest rally on Capitol Hill prior to the passing of the healthcare bill.
Racism exists within the society therefore perhaps it is no more surprising to find it at a Tea Party rally than at a football game. However, two questions remain: is racism a characteristic of the Tea Party and how reflective is this of the movement at a whole? Neither has a simple answer as racists tend not to volunteer their bigotry to pollsters, however, research carried out by Professor Gary Jacobsen suggests that members of the Tea Party are more likely to harbour some form of racial resentment than non-Tea Party affiliates. Using national data compiled by a congressional election study on political attitudes, behaviours, and beliefs following the 2010 mid-term elections, Jacobsen concluded:
“Tea Party activists have denied accusations that their movement is racist, and there is nothing intrinsically racist about opposing ‘big government’ or clean energy legislation or health care reform. But it is clear that the movement is more appealing to people who are unsympathetic to blacks and who prefer a harder line on illegal immigration than it is to other Americans.”
On the makeup of the Tea Party, Jacobsen also pointed out that:
“The movement energised people who opposed Barack Obama from the start and who subsequently developed intensely negative opinions of him and his agenda that were extended to his Democratic allies in Congress. Tea Party sympathies helped to mobilize an electorate that was older, whiter, more Republican and more conservative than the one that had given the Democrats control of the government two years earlier.”
Though the research is far from conclusive (and was immediately attacked in the blogosphere as part of an academic liberal conspiracy to discredit the Tea Party), when allied to the myriad YouTube clips displaying racist signs and various demographic studies that show the Tea Party member tend to be “older, white and male”, Jacobsen’s argument becomes persuasive.
Yet racism seems to be a very specific charge to throw at such a sizable and nebulous group. A broader and more potent characteristic of the Tea Party appears to be the fear of change, and not just the immediate individual concerns of unemployment or higher taxes, but the long-term remodelling of America and what it is to be an American.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton gave an address on immigration to the students of Portland State University. He said:
“Today, nearly one in ten people in America was born in another country; one in five schoolchildren is from immigrant families. Today, largely because of immigration, there is no majority race in Hawaii or Houston or New York City. Within five years there will be no majority race in our largest state, California. In a little more than 50 years there will be no majority race in the United States. No other nation in history has gone through demographic change of this magnitude in so short a time. What do the changes mean? They can either strengthen and unite us, or they can weaken and divide us. We must decide.”
A decade on, the US Census Bureau published a report that projected that by 2042, whites would no longer be the majority of the population, though they will remain the biggest single grouping (around 70 per cent) within the population until well after 2050.
Writing in the Atlantic, Hua Hsu argued that the rise of multi-culturalism in the US, manifested in myriad ways, from the growth of hip hop culture to Tiger Woods success on the golf course, has led to a “cultural and socioeconomic dislocation” for whites, who have become aggrieved by the sense that “the system that used to guarantee the white working class some stability has gone off-kilter.”
The politics of white identity in America, which for Hsu means “the gradual erosion of ‘whiteness’ as the touchstone of what it means to be American”, has left the country’s white working majority adrift in a world where “‘whiteness’ no longer defines the mainstream.”
And what greater indication of America’s shifting identity than the election of a Hawaiian-born, mixed-race man with a Kenyan father and a foreign-sounding name to the office of President?
Not that Obama’s victory triggered this crisis of identity, but in an unsophisticated way, the election of a black man to the white house probably brought the issue into sharper focus for America’s blue collared masses, certainly more than the projections on a Census Bureau report. As such, Tea Party members are not only politically conservative, but they are, in the literal sense, fearful of change. It’s a fear that has revealed itself in a number of ways, from the need to seek out new communities (the Tea Party as an expression of white identity) to investing in conspiracy theories that decry Obama is a secret-Muslim-fifth-columnist.
Like their John Bircher Society forebears, the Birthers, a group of people that claim that Obama is not a natural-born citizen of the United States, see only conspiracy and plot. Questions over the president’s constitutional eligibility originated as a political smear, playing to base fears of ‘otherness’ seared into the American psyche through decades of propaganda from the Cold War to the so-called War on Terror.
The rumours started during the 2008 Democratic Party primaries, when a handful of anonymous Hillary Clinton supporters tried to reignite her faltering campaign by questioning her opponent’s citizenship. Following Obama’s inauguration, the rumour was picked up by the Republican blogosphere, appealing not only to those who sought to make political hay, but also the vast legions of online conspiracy theorists seeking the “truth” on everything from the 9/11 attacks to the moon landings.
According to Kathryn Olmsted, conspiracy theories gain traction in the US for two main reasons:
“First, they’re highly effective because they tap into deep, historic American anxieties about “un-American” agents within the republic — perhaps even within the White House. Second, these stories have some powerful sponsors in the media and in politics, sponsors who insinuate their paranoid theories into the mainstream debate to promote their own political goals.”
For Olmsted, the birther issue is borne out of racism:
“Above all, his [Obama] ‘Americanness’ is almost certainly suspect because he’s not white. It’s hard to imagine the same theories being used against Sen. John McCain — even though he was born overseas and could have his U.S. citizenship legally challenged. These fears are worsening now partly because the economy has fallen on hard times, and also because there is a substantial part of the American electorate that will never accept a black president as legitimate.”
Polls give indications, though questionable, about the resonance of the birther myth within Tea Party ranks. A CBS News/ New York Times poll conducted in April 2010 found that 30 per cent of Tea Partiers thought Obama was born in another country, yet 41 per cent said they believed he was born in the US. Even among the wider US population, 20 per cent said they thought the president was not born in the US.
Though not its defining characteristic, racism remains part of the Tea Party makeup, betraying the anxieties of a social group stricken with a loss of identity and fearful of a future in which the tenets of the past have increasingly little hold.
Religion and revolution
Like race, religion is a pervasive aspect of American identity, soaked like a dye into the very fabric from which the nation was cut.
Though the makeup of the Tea Party remains hazy and imprecisely defined, research from Pew conducted in February 2011, suggested that “the movement “draw(s) disproportionate support from the ranks of white evangelical Protestants.” The research also concluded that “most people who agree with the religious right also support the Tea Party”, however the analysis found that support for the Tea Party “is not synonymous with support for the religious right”.
On social issues, Tea Partiers are more likely to base their decision on religious beliefs, with opposition to same-sex marriage running at 65 per cent, 15 per cent more than all registered voters. It was a similar story on abortion, with 59 per cent of Tea Partiers saying that abortion should be illegal in all/most cases, against the national average of 42 per cent.
Yet even if most Tea Party followers tend towards the religious right, this is perhaps one of its least distinctive characteristics. As noted by Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British Ambassador to the United States, in politics “God does not even get a walk-on part in our [European] elections. In America he is centre-stage, wherever you place yourself in the political spectrum, to be invoked as much by Barack Obama as Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has apparently been told by God to stay in the Republican primary race.”
If the bible is entrenched as the basis for moral or spiritual law for the Tea Party, the 1776 revolution and the constitution is equally as important as the basis for civic law.
For Jill Lepore, the revolution has been transformed into “civic-minded folklore that has been turned into historical fundamentalism” in the Tea Party mindset. There is nothing new about poaching episodes from history to buttress modern political positions, whether that’s the hijacking of Ronald Reagan’s legacy to the holding of a “Restore Honour” rally on the anniversary day of Martin Luther King’s historic freedom march.
Yet for Lepore, this “historical fundamentalism” has turned the revolution into an almost religious event, the birth of a country with a manifest destiny given by God.
As Lepore argues, “historical fundamentalism is marked by the belief that a particular and quite narrowly defined past—‘the founding’—is ageless and sacred and to be worshipped; that certain historical texts -‘the founding documents’- are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read, for instance, the Ten Commandments; that the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired; that the academic study of history (whose standards of evidence and methods of analysis are based on scepticism) is a conspiracy and, furthermore, blasphemy; and that political arguments grounded in appeals to the founding documents, as sacred texts, and to the Founding Fathers, as prophets, are therefore incontrovertible.”
To question the founding fathers or the constitution is to be a heretic. “Historians question the past, fundamentalists revere the past,” argues Lepore. For the Tea Party, the founders are divine, while the constitution has been raised to the level of a sacred document, similar to the gospels.
Fear not race is the defining characteristic of the Tea Party. The 2008 economic crash was played out on Wall Street, but the consequent evictions, foreclosures, rising unemployment figures and failing businesses had the biggest impact across the towns and cities of working class America.
In 2000, US national debt stood at $5.3 trillion. In 2008 it stood at $10 trillion. By 2018, projections put the debt at $18 trillion. Fear again pervades – how will we pay for this debt, how will the next generation pay for the debt? Reducing debt means higher taxes or debasing the dollar. Or, as the Tea Partiers argue, decrease borrowing now.
For much of the last decade, the US has been engaged in two costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to a 2011 congressional research report, the total cost of the wars stands at $1.3 trillion, not to forget the countless bodies (more than 8,500 fatalities) that have been repatriated to the US in black bags along with countless injuries during the conflicts. Support for the wars was built on fear – fear of WMD, fear of Muslims, fear of the spread of Islam, fear that petrol prices will rise, fear of terrorism, fear of anything “other” than America or that threatens America’s standing.
To the east, Chinese industry threatened US global economic hegemony, while to the south a seemingly porous border added to the number of illegal immigrants on American streets, with 11 million illegal immigrants lived in the US in 2008, 56 per cent of which came from Mexico.
Added to the fear of outside threats came perceived threats from within. The bailout, and the stimulus packaged jarred with the country’s free markets fundamentals, used by the opponents of the administration to whip up economic anxieties. Likewise healthcare reform, which not only challenged the sovereignty of the markets but also treaded on the toes of the constitution.
The country was changing and in the midst of this shift, Barack Hussein Obama was elected to office, embodying a new form of America- culturally, economically, politically and racially. To that end, the Tea Party came into being as a product of the forces pushing inwards and outwards on the society. However, Obama’s victory in 2008 and his subsequent policies, many forced by the same outside pressures, threw into sharp relief the changes and fears that beset the nation.