As a student in the exciting new field of Tea Party Studies, I’ve noticed that no one agrees on what the Tea Party actually is. Is the anti-Obama, anti-big government movement simply AstroTurf fabricated by Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks? Is it a bunch of Birthers, Birchers, conspiracists, and white power misfits? Is it a strictly economic phenomenon—the inevitable result of high and persistent unemployment? Or are the Tea Partiers nothing more than indulgent Boomers who combine 1960s social libertarianism with 1980s laissez-faire economics? Does the Tea Party draw on longstanding American constitutional, political, and economic traditions, eddies of thought that one can trace back to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson? Or is it of a more recent vintage: Are the Tea Partiers simply the same folks who once were called Reagan Democrats and Perotistas?
All of the above. There is no single “Tea Party.” The name is an umbrella that encompasses many different groups. Under this umbrella, you’ll find everyone from the woolly fringe to Ron Paul supporters, from Americans for Prosperity to religious conservatives, independents, and citizens who never have been active in politics before. The umbrella is gigantic. But there are discernible ribs that extend outward from its central post, and points of shared concern that support the overall structure.
First, the Tea Party is unified by the pervasive sense that the country is wildly off course. It believes the establishment has bent and twisted the rules for its own benefit. America, the Tea Partiers believe, is headed for a fiscal reckoning unlike any it has ever seen.
Second, the Tea Party is unified in opposition to the policies that it believes put America in its current predicament. It’s opposed to bailouts, which favor the wealthy and connected. It’s opposed to out-of-control spending at every level of government. It’s opposed to an expansive state that subsidizes bad behavior while accruing more and more power for itself, opposed to a limitless government that nonetheless fails in the basic duties of securing the borders, regulating the financial sector, and keeping America safe.
Third, the Tea Party draws its strength from the American founding. It celebrates the Founders and their ideas. Tea Party members devour books about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Samuel Adams. They carry pocket copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. They believe strongly in the Bill of Rights, especially in the Tenth Amendment’s admonition that all powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved for the states and the people. Their rhetoric invokes the constitutional vision of a limited government with enumerated powers.
These beliefs support a political message with great promise. The bad economy and the Obama administration’s liberal agenda have produced widespread voter discontent. The president’s approval rating has declined significantly since his inauguration. Support for Congress is at record lows. The idea that economic distress would cause the American people to embrace the federal government has been exposed as hokum. In April, the Pew Research Center released a survey that concluded, “by almost every conceivable measure Americans are less positive and more critical of government.” The center’s pollsters found that, “rather than an activist government to deal with the nation’s top problems, the public now wants government reformed and growing numbers want its power curtailed.”
On bailouts, stimulus, and health care, the public is closer to the Tea Party than to the Democratic party. This is one reason why, despite the unpopularity of both major parties, voters are focusing their anger on Democratic incumbents. In a recent Gallup poll, 49 percent of respondents said the Democratic party was “too liberal.” That’s only one point less than the record, which Gallup measured in 1994. An NPR poll last week of battleground House districts found Republicans leading Democrats by eight points on the generic ballot.
This is the sort of political environment where one would expect to find the Tea Party feeling its oats. And in many respects the Tea Party’s record has been impressive. The movement helped force Arlen Specter and Charlie Crist out of the Republican party. It helped end the career of Republican senator Robert Bennett of Utah. It’s brought large numbers of new people into the political process. It’s upset the ossified Republican establishment in primaries around the country. It’s pushed American politics to the right, and shaped public opinion of the stimulus and health care reform.