The Origin of the Tea Party Movement and its Ideology
The modern Tea Party is a progressively conservative nativist protectionist populist movement that represent a response to globalism and progressive social liberalism. They are similar to the past Know-Nothing, pro-gold Gilded Age, Hoover Anti-Communist Republican, America First, 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).
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.
The Tea Party 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.
MUSING: Native? An ironic term for the sons of immigrants. I’m sure at least the American Indian thinks so. Consider learning also about the Origin Of The Anglo-Americans from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. The story of modern American nativism doesn’t start in the 1600’s Americas, it starts in the old world and grows from immigrants into ideologies like “know-nothing” and “tea party”.
Finding the Roots of the Tea Party in Factions like the Know-Nothings and America First Movement
One’s first instinct might be to look at the actual Tea Party for the roots of the modern Tea Party movement, and we can see nativist nationalist Federalists and radical anti-Federalists who fit the bill… but this isn’t the real roots. The real roots are in the pre-Civil War era with the Know-Nothings.
Bill “the Butcher” (from the movie Gangs of New York, if you’ve seen it, was one of the leaders of the Know-Nothing movement in NYC. Bill represented the populist wing of the Know-Nothings. Bill-like nativists were allied with elite nativists like Thomas Whitney, who were more like aristocratic Federalists with a nationalist nativist spirit. Today we can also see both these types, we would probably call them Tea Party and Neocons.
“I Don’t Know-Nothing“, is what you say after you beat up a Catholic immigrant for not being a “native” American. And, not much has changed since the first time the myth of Spanish inquisition was spread. Xenophobia man, sucks in any era… but will prevail in any era, as we forget and say things like . Consider, Leonardo Dicaprio’s character in Gangs of New York has a Vendetta against the corrupt Bill, as his immigrant Irish father was Killed by the nativist Protestant Bill… I.E. Scorsese, the second generation Catholic Italian immigrant, likely made this film on purpose to show the roots of this American ideology born in northern the cities in times of mass immigration.
From here we can also note that the Confederates (and even the extremist group the KKK) also had similar views on Catholics, Jews, non-Whites, and immigrants. We can also note later groups like the “America First” movement that had very similar ideologies. This is to say, a pushback against elements of left-wing progressivism, Federal power, immigration, and general globalization is nothing new. Specifics change by faction and era, but we can recognize these similar factions in any era due to the policy, rhetoric, and ideology they share.
For more reading, see: How the 19th-Century Know Nothing Party Reshaped American Politics From xenophobia to conspiracy theories, the Know Nothing party launched a nativist movement whose effects are still felt today.
“Gangs Of New York” Best Scene HDGangs of New York | ‘Fear‘ (HD) – Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis | MIRAMAX. The “others” (those whom we fear in the political sense) used to be the Catholic Irish and Italian immigrants. They were the N-word of the Nativist Northerners, competing for that factory job, competing for that warm meal or roof, pulled to the left and right over their vote, just like the Southern Conservative had his N-word, the northerner had his. Today, the two factions form a “conservative coalition” and are on a team called Republican, and we turn on “illegal” Muslims and Mexicans for a modern N-word, a modern boogyman who makes us feel “not safe” and “takes our jobs”. Some will say, “but you focus on skin color and relgiion when the real divide is by economic class”… but, this is discounting the very real and natural left-right split that seems to be more powerful than the class divide. Maybe Marx missed something with his theory?
Are the Tea Party Fascist? If putting a small group, in this case generally Protestant White Americans, before others is fascist, then in that way the Tea Party is. However, the idea they are fascist is more a broad insult than an accurate description of the ideology of the movement and its members. In insult land we can call “America first” or “Know-Nothing” or “Confederate” fascist right-wingers (“like the NAZIs”). But that is more an insult more than nuanced truth. They aren’t exactly the KKK or NAZIs (see those links for essays on how to understand each group), those groups are progressively socially conservative populist right-wingers, the Tea Party are a more like the acceptable more PC and more liberal version of this (in the same way they might call Bernie Sanders or anything Obama did “Communist”, it is in this way that Reagan, Trump, and the Tea Party aren’t ” exactly like the NAZIs”. It is more appropriate to say the Tea Party are like the fully American quasi-fascist factions, the “Know-Nothings” and the “America First” movements… they really legitimately are like extensions of those, with their own unique modern ideology, mashed-up with “religious right”, “Hoover anti-Communist”, “pro-Gold Gilded Age Republican”. They are a manifestation of the response to increased immigration and globalism, this neo-fascist movement is a global phenomena, but the Tea Party is very specifically the American version of this. TIP: Neo means “new version + not exactly the same” like how a neo-liberal is a new version of a liberal who isn’t exactly a liberal. BOTTOMLINE: The tea party is fascist in the same way Bernie Sanders is a Communist, “not really” but we can see why the opposition makes the association.
America First Explained: US History Review.
Who Started the Tea Party?
With the Know-Nothings and other similar factions now mentioned, let’s move on to the origin story of the modern Tea Party in modern times where we can see it is [arguably] born out of libertarian roots more than nativist ones (hinting at Plato’s old warning that extremes of liberty and equality have paradoxical effects):
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 modern Tea Party, as noted above, wasn’t just like the nativist Know-Nothings.
As noted above, 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 Republican base”).
From this frame, despite the modern history of the Tea Party Movement, we can look back to America’s founders and founding factions 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, some purely nativist and protectionist like the Know-Nothings and America first, some nationalist like a classical Republican… but all that aside, it does not want big Roosevelt-Republican social program progressive left-wing equality for all progressive social liberalism favored by the global New Left.
This is to say, there is nothing new about the Tea Party, its planks, or its opposition.
Trump is a bit like a Gilded Age Republican, a bit like a Know Nothing, and literally in his own words “America First”…. and this makes sense, because the modern New Guard “Tea Party” Republicans and general alt-right essentially share this ideology.
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 rest is their right-leaning libertarian allies).
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, not just in America, but across the Globe where nativism protectionism pushes back against neo-liberal globalization as a response to issues like immigration.
When we find extremes on the left, the right pushes back, when the extremes are on the right, the left pushes back. The scales will always seek balance, and factions will always arise in response. Because this is part of human nature, we can always understand new groups by looking at history as it repeats.
The History of the Tea Party in Four MinutesTea Party America BBC Documentary.
- Tea Party movement
- Trump, the Republican/Tea Party, and the Whig/Know-Nothing Party
- Fascism, Ron Paul and the Roots of the Tea party
- Don’t be fooled by Bernie Sanders — he’s a diehard communist
- Trump’s ‘America First’ has ugly echoes from U.S. history
- Trump, Reagan and Fascism: Frank Rich and the Pitfalls of Historical Analogy
- The Secret Origins of the Tea Party
- Tea Party movement
- Ron Paul Is Not The Founder of the Tea Party Movement