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 movements in the past, Know-Nothing, pro-gold Gilded Age, Hoover Anti-Communist Republican, America First, and States’ Rights movements in America.
With that said, like with any other popular national movement, sub-movements come in many flavors including conservative, moderate, and radical forms. Consider the vast difference between Paul Ryan, Steve Bannon, and Ted Cruz for a quick example. Some care about a single voter issue; some care about economics, some cultural integration, some religion. Like the Republican Party, the Tea Party is itself a “Big Tent,” and “Big Tent” implies different factions with different stances agreeing on a common direction.
Suffice to say, the Tea Party is a mashup of socially conservative American ideologies from the North and South from 1776 to 2017, and thus it is complex.
This mash-up, being emblematic of the conservative coalition which helped to cause “the Sixth Party Switch,” includes many different business-related and populist interests. However, despite the business interests and differences in the group, the Tea Party is well defined as being anti-establishment, anti-Washington, patriotically correct, anti-big government, and often in support of the textbook religious right.
Furthermore, while Tea Party members have diverse views, they can be described as very classically liberal in their love of individual liberty. However, they are often very socially conservative in their call for the state to build a wall, but cut the safety net, to deregulate firearms, but regulate women’s bodies, to restrict the immigration of Muslims, but tell people which bathroom to use, etc.
They are populist right-wingers, the counterpart to the populist left of occupy, BLM, Bernie Progressives, Green Party, etc. They favor liberty, but unlike a CATO libertarian, are comfortable using federal and state power when it suits them.
The Tea Party is many things, including an inescapably human and American sentiment found in different 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 best considered a socially conservative movement well defined by terms like Nativist and Nationalist. Given that, we can make a clear connection between this modern populist right group and past populist right movements.
MUSING: The Know-Nothing Party was also known as the “Native American Party.” That is an ironic name as they did not intend to benefit Native American tribes at all. Consider learning 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 origin is in the pre-Civil War era with factions like 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 they were expected to say after they beat up a Catholic immigrant for not being a “native” American. Not much has changed since the first time the myth of Spanish Inquisition was spread. Xenophobia thrives in any era. Consider, Leonardo Dicaprio’s character in Gangs of New York has a Vendetta against Bill since his immigrant Irish father was Killed by the Nativist Protestant Bill. Scorsese, a second generation Catholic Italian immigrant, probably made this film to show the roots of this American ideology in northern the cities during times of mass immigration.
From here, we can note that the Confederates (and the extremist group, the KKK) had similarly xenophobic views of Catholics, Jews, non-Whites, and immigrants. We can also see that later groups, like the “America First” movement, had similar ideologies. They tried to push back against left-wing progressivism, Federal power, immigration, and globalization. Specifics change by faction and era, but we can recognize similar factions in any era by 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 targets of the Nativist Northerners, competing for the factory jobs, competing for the warm meals or roofs, pulled to the left and right over their vote. Just as the Southern Conservative had his out-group, the northerner had his. Today, the two factions form a “conservative coalition” and are on a team called Republican. Today people are turning on “illegals,” Muslims, and Mexicans and treating them as the modern boogeymen who makes “us” feel “not safe” and “takes our jobs.” Some will say, “but you focus on skin color and religion when there is a significant divide by economic class,” but this is discounting the very real left-right split that seems to be more powerful than the class divide. Maybe Marx missed something with his theory?
Are the Tea Party Members Fascist? If putting a small group, in this case mostly Protestant White Americans before others, is fascist, then in that way alone 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. We can call “America first” or “Know-Nothing” or “Confederate” believers, fascist right-wingers “like the NAZIs.” However, that is an insult instead of nuanced truth. They aren’t the KKK or NAZIs. See those links for essays on each group. Those groups are progressively socially conservative populist right-wingers. The Tea Party are less extreme and more liberal populists. The Tea Party might share some beliefs with the American quasi-fascist factions, the “Know-Nothings” and the “America First” movements. They are like extensions of those, with their own unique modern ideology, mixed with “religious right,” “Hoover anti-Communist,” “pro-Gold Gilded Age Republican.” They are a response to increased immigration and globalism. This neo-fascist movement is a global phenomenon, but the Tea Party is very specifically the American version of this. TIP: Neo means “new version and not the same.” A neo-liberal is a new version of a liberal who isn’t exactly a liberal. BOTTOM LINE: The tea party is no more fascist than Bernie Sanders is Communist. The opposition makes the association.
America First Explained: US History Review.
Who Started the Tea Party?
Now that we have discussed the Know-Nothings and other similar factions let’s move on to the Tea Party in modern times where we can see it may spring from Libertarian roots rather than Nativist ones. Remember Plato’s old warning that extremes of liberty and equality have paradoxical effects.
The story of the development of the modern Tea Party is convoluted and contested. It started as a semi-grassroots effort funded by think tanks, activist Libertarians and Republicans, and popularized by right-wing media. It was a boots on the ground and word of mouth organization. Beyond those general statements, the story is fuzzy at best.
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 of the Boston Tea Party, we are Taxed Enough Already.” Then, as the movement caught on and bigger players came into the picture in 2009, it became a catch-all movement for conservatives who wanted to push back against he Obama era.
As such, the Tea Party is part Fox News, part right-wing radio, and part “new guard Republican.” Despite a few Reagan-like qualities, it is not an “old guard” movement. This is the force that led to Trump’s 2016 victory and resulted in the weakening of “the old guard.” 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). In review, the bailout of Bush’s failed mortgage policy caused the Great Recession and resulted in the popularity of the Tea Party. The movement defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 and gave us Donald Trump. That is just the sort of irony that took down Hoover.
What Historical Movements does the Tea Party Resemble?
The modern Tea Party, wasn’t like the nativist Know-Nothings.
The Tea Party mixes classical liberal views on the economy and nativist populist right-wing views on nationalism and social policy in a single movement. Remember, it didn’t start this way; it developed as it was popularized and “sold to” “the Republican base.”
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. We can look back on John C. Calhoun, the Anti-Masons, the Know-Nothings, William Jennings Bryan and his activism, the states’ rights Dixiecrats of any era. We can call them Confederate, KKK, or Wallace, Goldwater, or Byrd. They are part Gilded Age pro-Gold Barons, part Coolidge classical liberals, part Hoover “Red Scare” anti-Communists. Oddly, just after the 2016 election, they now admire Putin and Mother Russia for a the time being. When we look at the Tea Party, we can see its roots in the Conservative Coalition and can trace it back to the more radical founders like Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. To recap one last point, it is 100% modern “new guard” Republican. It is 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 America,” and that is different from being “Nationalist” in a pure sense. It 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, blaming “the liberal elite” or “jewish media” for “x.”
Timeline of the ‘birther’ movement. It is not an intellectual movement like Marxism. In fact, it is a pushback against the heathen Urban Intellectual socialist who is perceived to think they are better than the rural working man. This is a 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. It doesn’t always win one a country, but sometimes it does.
TIP: The Tea Party is one of many worldwide movements which are pushing back against globalization. See our page on nativist protectionism vs. neoliberal globalization. In the modern era, the Tea Party resembles Nativist Protectionist movements across the globe. Americans should take seriously that, in other countries, the old fascist parties are reforming into Tea Party-like entities. This doesn’t speak directly to the classically liberal Tea Party. However, just as a Tea Party member may advise a social liberal to be wary of Communist sentiment, a progressive might warn a Tea Party person to take the parallels between creating a list of Muslims and building a Wall and Hitler’s treatment of non-German Nationals seriously. WWII and the House Un-American Committee fought Communists and Fascists. Right-wing Americans are quick to point out the similarities between any social program and Communism, but they shy away from acknowledging any commonality between fascism and an extreme Tea Party stand. 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.
They may call themselves conservative, and can be in some respects, but they are more classically liberal and socially conservative.
They want to deregulate economy and social programs (classically liberal) and regulate immigration and women’s health (socially conservative). They want individual liberty (classically liberal) and are protectionist, religious, and nationalistic (classically conservative).
They want a lot of things, some statist, some libertarian in the original spirit envisioned by Paul, some purely nativist and protectionist like the Know-Nothings and America first, some nationalist like a classical Republican. All that aside, they do not want big Roosevelt-Republican social programs or progressive left-wing equality or the progressive social liberalism favored by the global New Left.
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, in his own words, for “America First.” This makes sense, because the New Guard “Tea Party” Republicans and the alt-right 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, or Social Security as they are to regulate another person’s rights with strict abortion laws, segregation, prohibition, etc. Pair this with the other major wing of the party, which favors tax breaks to big businesses and those who are religious right and we have a large portion of the modern right. The rest is made up of their right-leaning libertarian allies.
The Tea Party is emblematic of the modern nativist populist right-wing in the post 80’s era. We cherish the economic boom of Reagan, but not of Obama, yet forgive the crash caused by Bush. At the same time, we decry the decline of coal country and the rust belt blaming Obama. In ways, these views are 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 seek balance; factions will always arise in response. Because this is part of human nature, we can understand new groups by looking at history as it repeats itself.
The History of the Tea Party in Four MinutesTea Party America BBC Documentary.
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