The Tea Party

The Tea Party can just as accurately be called the Tea Parties—both terms will be used here—because it exists on several levels and incorporates sometimes-competing factions as a loose confederation of sorts. As one friendly observer remarked, “There is no one main phone number [in Washington] for the Tea Parties.” Polls show that roughly 25 to 30 percent or more of adults agree with or support the Tea Party; this amounts to tens of millions of citizens. An estimated 20 percent of self-identified Tea Party supporters are activists who attend rallies, donate money, and regularly follow the movement on the internet. Most of them are much angrier than other citizens about the direction the nation has taken.

. . . So what is the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this chapter: “Astroturf or Grassroots Populism?” The simple answer is that the Tea Parties have been created by both kinds of populism, in part by the few—the corporate lobbyists from above—but also from the passionate many expressing real grassroots populism.

. . . In 2008, immersed in his business and family life and nominally a libertarian and Republican [David] Kirkham was not politically active. But the bank bailouts begun under President George W. Bush and the bailouts Obama undertook as well as the stimulus package galvanized him to take action. Socialism, he believed, was taking over. In March 2009, entirely on his own he called for a Tea Party rally in Salt Lake City. To his surprise about a hundred people showed up. Within months Kirkham was the head of the Utah Tea Party and hobnobbing with Republican political heavyweights like Utah’s long-serving U.S. senator Orrin G. Hatch. With Tea party affairs now a large part of his life, political engagement meant acting to change the direction he feared the country was taking.

. . . Whatever setbacks Tea Party activists have suffered in conquering local Republican committees, members and supporters of the movement now virtually dominate the Republican voting base and in 2012 may constitute 40 percent or more of Republican primary voters. Amazingly, 10 percent of all voters regard themselves as Tea Party members first and Republicans second.

. . . The Tea Party grassroots shares some of the classic hallmarks of the third-party/independent tradition: suspicion of professional politicians, frustration with the two-party system and politics as usual, and a hankering for simple solutions to complex problems. They claim to be above the nitty-gritty of politics and the established parties and proudly declare their unwillingness to negotiate or compromise.

. . . the Tea Party’s various elements, unlike independent third parties of the past, have thus far acted primarily as a pressure group within just one party–the Republican Party.

. . . Today’s Tea Parties differ in significant ways from late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century reformers in opposing the use of government power for social ends; in visceral hostility to federal taxation; in antipathy to labor unions; in preference for the free market rather than fairness for all; in opposition to programs to help the needy; and, generally, in a reactionary crusade to roll back federal power. Like other right-wing populist movements, the Tea Parties have produced leaders who tend to display a macho persona, and the grassroots sometimes seem unwilling to tolerate the expression of opposing political views.


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