The Origin of the Tea Party Movement and its Ideology
The Tea Party is today a conservative nativist protectionist populist movement, similar to the past Know-Nothing, pro-gold Gilded Age, Hoover Republican, and States’ Rights movements in America.
Thus, the Tea Party is a mashup of socially conservative American ideologies from the North and South, from 1776 to 2017. It is anti-establishment, anti-Washington, patriotically correct, anti-big government, and often text-book religious right. They are very liberal in their love of individual liberty, but often very socially conservative in their calls for their use of the state (build a wall, but cut the safety net, deregulate firearms, but regulate women’s bodies, restrict immigration of muslims, but tell people what bathroom to use, etc). In simple terms, they are populist right-wingers, the counterpart to the populist left (occupy, BLM, Bernie Progressives, Green Party, etc).
The Tea Party is many things, including an inescapably human and American sentiment found in many eras (especially those that saw financial insecurity, an influx of immigration, or an excess of state power), but there are a few things it is not.
It is not it is not elitist, it is not “old guard classically conservative republican”, and it is not progressive or socially liberal. It may be classically liberal in its message of deregulation, and it may be classically conservative on some issues of state (like protectionism, immigration, and religion), but it is generally best considered a socially conservative movement.
Who Started the Tea Party?
Noting that the origin story of the modern Tea Party is convoluted and contested, the modern Tea Party starts as a semi-grassroots effort funded by think tanks, funded by activist Libertarians and Republicans, and popularized by right-wing media, boots on the ground, and word of mouth. Beyond those general statements, the story is fuzzy at best.
Convolution and back story aside, the Tea Party movement was originally, at least in part, popularized by figures like Ron Paul as a Libertarian movement that said, “just like the founders at the Boston Tea Party, we are Taxed Enough Already”. Then, as the movement caught on and bigger players came into the picture, it quickly became a catch-all movement for all types of conservatives who wanted to push back against he Obama era starting in 2009.
As such, the Tea Party is part Fox News, part right-wing radio, and part “new guard Republican” (despite a few Reagan-esque qualities it is not an “old gaurd” movement). This is the movement that led to Trump’s 2016 victory and resulted in the weakening of “the old guard”. Thus, it deserves examination.
The History of the Tea Party in Four Minutes.
THE ORIGIN OF THE TEA PARTY: February 19, 2009, Rick Santelli, a commentator on the business-news network CNBC, referenced the Boston Tea Party in his response to President Barack Obama’s mortgage relief plan (TARP). So to be clear, the bailout of Bush’s failed mortgage policy which caused the Great Recession resulted in the Tea Party which ended up beating Hillary in 2016 and giving us Trump. That is just the sort of irony that took down Hoover.
What Historic Movements is the Tea Party Like?
The Tea Party is a mash-up of classical liberal views on economy and nativist populist right-wing views on nationalism and social policy, rolled into a single movement (remember it didn’t start this way, it became this as it was popularized and sold to “the base”).
Despite its modern history, we can look back to the founders to see its roots. Specifically, we can look back to the radical anti-Federalists. However, we can also look far beyond the founders to Andrew Jackson and see its roots, to John C. Calhoun, to the Anti-Masons, to the Know-Nothings, to William Jennings Bryan and his activism, to the states’ rights Dixiecrats of any era whether we call them Confederate, KKK, or Wallace, Goldwater, or Byrd, it is part Gilded Age pro-Gold Baron, it is part Coolidge classical liberal, it is part Hoover “Red Scare” anti-Communist (except post 2016 election where they now love Putin and mother Russia for a minute; which is weird), it is part Conservative Coalition, and like I said we can most certainly also trace it back to the more radical founders like Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, and Thomas Jefferson… And to recap one last point, it is 100% modern “new guard” Republican (not “the old right” which implies more classical conservatism and more social liberalism, like McCain and Bush).
Is the Tea Party “Nationalist”? The Tea Party is very nativist, but it isn’t purely nationalist. It may be very American in some ways, but it is exclusive in its nationalism (it isn’t pro-America without any qualifiers, it wasn’t pro-“two-term-President-Obama”, it is pro-“real ‘Merica”, and that is different than being “Nationalist” in a pure sense; as that implies favoring the nation and all nationals). When movements are exclusive, but nationalist, we have to use more terms to provide an accurate description. Thus, the Tea Party is sort of a National Nativist American Workers’ Party in this sense.
TIP: Movements that are “Tea Party” include the “birther movement” that questioned whether or not President Barack Obama was “a secret Muslim”. It is not always a “high brow” movement. In fact it is often anti-intellectual and post-truth blaming things like “the liberal elite” or “jew media” for “x”. In this way again, it isn’t unlike historic nativist nationalist populist right-wing movements from history. This is of course because that is an advent of the human condition, not just America or the 2010’s.
Timeline of the ‘birther’ movement. Crazy how these things happen. It is not an intellectual movement like say Marxism. In fact, it is a pushback against the heathen Urban Intellectual socialist who thinks they are better than the rural working man (the perception). Classic American argument. We can see it in the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, in the Civil War, and in many other points and places in history. Doesn’t always win one a country, but sometimes it does.
TIP: The Tea Party is one of many world-wide movements which are pushing back against globalization (see our page on nativist protectionism vs. neoliberal globalization; in the modern era the Tea Party is very representatives of the nativist protectionist movements across the globe). Americans should take seriously that, in other countries, it is the old fascist parties who are reforming into Tea Party-like entities. This doesn’t speak directly to the rather classically liberal Tea Party, but just as a Tea Party person may advise a social liberal to be weary of Communist sentiment, a progressive might warn a Tea Party person to take seriously the parallels between creating a list of Muslims and building a Wall and Hitler’s treatment of non-German Nationals. At the end of the day WWII and the House Un-American Committee were about fighting Communists and Fascists. There is a crossable line here, right-wing Americans are quick to point out the similarities between any social program and Communism, but shy away when you point out the obvious similarities between fascism and extreme Tea Party-ism. I don’t mean this to offend, I mean it as Hamilton said, “We are a Republican Government. Real liberty is never found in despotism or in the extremes of Democracy.” Learn more about the ideology of the fascists.
The Ideology of the Tea Party
Like all the aforementioned, the Tea Party may benefit the elite, but it is not itself elite. It may call itself conservative, and it can be in some respects, but it is more classically liberal and socially conservative. It wants to deregulate economy and social programs (classically liberal) and regulate immigration and women’s health (socially conservative). It wants individual liberty (classically liberal) and is protectionist, religious, and nationalistic (classically conservative).
It wants a lot of things, some statist, some libertarian as is the original spirit envisioned by Paul, but it does not want big Roosevelt social program progressive left-wing equality for all liberalism (it is not socially liberal).
This is to say, there is nothing new about the Tea Party. Trump is a bit like a Gilded Age Republican, a bit like a Know Nothing…. and this makes sense, because so are the modern New Guard “Tea Party” Republicans.
They aren’t elite, and they aren’t socially liberal. But on a given day they are just as likely to deregulate a social program (like Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security) as they are to regulate away another person’s rights (strict abortion laws, segregation, prohibition, etc). Pair this with the other major wing of the party who favors tax breaks to big businesses and those who are just truly religious right… and we have a large portion of the modern right.
The Tea Party is emblematic of the modern nativist populist right-wing in the post 80’s era (where we somehow cherish the economic boom of Reagan, but for some reason not of Obama, yet forgive the crash of Bush, at the same time decry the decline of coal country and the rust belt… blaming Obama), and in ways is simply emblematic of the entire modern right.
The History of the Tea Party in Four MinutesTea Party America BBC Documentary.
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