The Tea Party: A Brief History
Ronald P. Formisano
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The Tea Party burst on the national political scene in 2009–2010, powered by right-wing grassroots passion and Astroturf big money. Its effect on electoral politics and the political process is undeniable, but the message, aims, and staying power of the loosely organized groups seem less clear. In this concise book, American political historian Ronald P. Formisano probes the remarkable rise of the Tea Party movement during a time of economic crisis and cultural change and examines its powerful impact on American politics.
A confederation of intersecting and overlapping organizations, with a strong connection to the Christian fundamentalist Right, the phenomenon could easily be called the Tea Parties. The American media’s fascination with the Tea Party―and the tendency of political leaders who have embraced the movement to say and do outlandish things―not only has fueled the fire driving the movement, but has diverted attention from its roots, agenda, and the enormous influence it holds over the Republican Party and the American political agenda. Looking at the Tea Party's claims to historical precedent and patriotic values, Formisano locates its anti-state and libertarian impulses deep in American political culture as well as in voter frustrations that have boiled over in recent decades. He sorts through the disparate goals the movement’s different factions espouse and shows that, ultimately, the contradictions of Tea Party libertarianism reflect those ingrained in the broad mass of the electorate.
Throughout American history, third parties, pressure groups, and social movements have emerged to demand reforms or radical change, only to eventually fade away, even if parts of their programs often are later adopted. The Tea Party’s impact as a pressure group has been more immediate. Whether the Tea Party endures remains to be seen. Formisano’s brief history certainly gives us clues.
example, three of the five states hauling in the most cash in agricultural subsidies are “red states” where antigovernment fever waxes strong; seven of the top ten subsidized states normally go Republican in elections. Besides the antigovernment strain, the liberal tradition in the United States emphasizes the pursuit of self-interest, inspires moderate to little reverence for the collective, and holds sacred individual rights of self-expression. In addition, American egalitarianism does not
Disillusionment with government “for the people” is hardly limited to Tea Partiers. Interviews with voters of both parties repeatedly reveal the conviction that government, in the end, works to the benefit of the well-connected, the wealthy, and, in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse, the irresponsible. Citizens feel “estranged” from government. Democratic voters in particular do not trust Democratic politicians’ promises to work for the people.20 Not so obvious to the public is the
of Tea Partiers did not believe that the president had a valid birth certificate.27 That polling took place before April 2011, when the White House, seeking to quiet a new flurry of attention to the birth issue raised by potential candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, released the president’s long-form birth certificate from Hawaii. Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and others who had stirred the birther pot quickly backed off. In the space of about two weeks, the percentage of
come into use until four decades later. The action was populist and an act of virtually the entire community, approved by “the whole body of the people” of Boston, not just a minority of militants. John Adams, a lawyer of moderate temperament and regarded by many as a conservative, believed “the Destruction of the Tea” was necessary. For it to land would have accepted the principle of taxation by a distant Parliament “against which the Continent have struggled for 10 years.” He wrote further in
of Tea Party supporters said that the government is doing too much that should be left to individuals and businesses (only 27% of Tea Party opponents agreed, and 64% of that group believed government should be doing more to solve the country’s problems). Tea Party activists are quite adamant—92 percent—about rejecting government as a way to solve problems or meet needs. “The government is doing too much” is a phrase that easily encompasses “spending” and “big government.” The economic collapse