The Roots of a Grassroots Movement:
The Driving Force Behind the Tea Party and its Effects on America’s Two-Party System
By Russell Leboff, Hampden-Sydney College Tea Party Patriots
TeaPartyUniversity at Gmail.Com
The Tea Party Movement has been a major political force since its commencement in 2009, but even though the effects of the movement have been apparent to the informed citizen, the organizational methods, motivation, and rationale behind the Tea Party movement has tended to be debatable and ambiguous to many American citizens. Moreover, the independence of the Tea Party in terms of its hesitance to adjoin to one specific organization or idea has proved to be the primary strength of the movement. Many critics of the Tea Party Movement have asserted that the Tea Party Movement is merely a group of “conservative activists with a new identity funded by Republican business elites and reinforced by a network of media sources.” (20).1 Some have gone even further in saying that the Tea Party was started by these business elites. In my opinion, the widespread independence and variety of the Tea Party Movement prove that this movement is not one started merely by business elites trying to avoid tax hikes, but one of true American “grassroot” nature. If this movement had been one started by business elites and self-interested politicians, it would me much more centralized, conformed, and organized, as opposed to being so spread out with a wide variety of groups and ideas, that ultimately conform and compromise to adhere to the three primary views of the Tea party. This paper will seek to analyze the birth of the Tea Party movement, and it’s current and future involvement in America’s two-party political system, arguing that the independent nature of the Tea Party is its true strength and source of power.
Many scholars including Dick Armey, author of Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto, agree that, “it is difficult to say when the modern Tea Party came into being. We believe that Americans have always stood up for liberty and possess an innate sense or responsibility to guard their freedoms. In other words, we’ve always been here. And we’re not going away” (11).2 In my opinion, the “birth” of the Tea Party movement began during Rick Santelli’s epic speech on the Chicago trading floor. Santelli, a news anchor for CNBC, shouted on national television that he was furious about the frivolous government spending and the federal housing bailout; he then continued to say that he was going be the organizer for a Tea Party event there in Chicago. The Perspectives on Politics Journal describe the event as being “private citizens who had never protested, never agitated, never taken a public stand, beginning to gather and organize to make a difference.” (20). 1 The 2010 bailouts, Obama’s stimulus package, and the expansion of government by President Bush during his terms were three of the main reasons that caused the reactionary Tea Party Movement. Once April 15th of 2010 rolled around, local Tea Parties had sprung up all over the nation and the movement had spread like wildfire. Once the Tea Party gained leadership on the political stage through elites such as Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul, the Tea party was beginning to be recognized as a serious political force.
After exploring the hypothesized origins of the Tea Party Movement, it is then necessary to determine what type of people make up this political group. Scott Rasmussen and Douglas Schoen stated in their book, Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally remaking our Two-party system, that the “Tea Partiers” are primarily made up three types of people: people who were outraged by the actions of the government and had become spontaneously interested in participating, political independents who no longer trust the American two-party system, and far-right Conservative Republicans who feel they have no true place in current politics. The three main core values of the Tea Party call the federal government to be fiscally responsible (do not spend money they do not have and inflate the economy), adhere strictly to the Constitution of the United Sates, and limit its federal power and size. Many scholars generally label the Tea Party uprising as “a new incarnation long-standing US conservatism.”1 People in the Tea Party are angry about bloated federal-spending programs such as Medicare, Social Security, and the Affordable Care Act. All supporters of the Tea Party consider the Constitution to be the essential mold for good representative government, and they also consider the views of the Founding Fathers’ to be the standard for adhering the Constitution.
Even though support for the Tea Party Movement is considerably strong, there were and are many problems that faced and are facing the Tea Party today. First of all, the Tea Party is poorly funded, and many skeptics consider those who do fund it to be conservative, self-interested business elites who seek to expand their fortunes by avoiding tax hikes. Furthermore, because the Tea Party had literally no national organization and no national voice, it was widely regarded with criticism and ridicule. For instance, Rasmussen and Schoen note former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s comment regarding the Tea Party Movement: “This initiative is funded by some of the wealthiest people in America to keep focus on the tax cuts for the rich instead of for the great middle-class” (2).3
In actuality, the Tea Party is composed of many middle-class citizens, who have simply lost trust in the United States government. Although Tea Partiers are made up of many middle and upper class Americans, this is not the reason supporters oppose many government spending programs and tax increases. Tea Party advocates are specifically angry at those federal programs that aim to benefit the “non-workers” at the cost of their tax-dollars. Tea Partiers are not hostile towards all types of government spending programs, but they believe that many unworthy people benefit from these programs at their expense. “Non-workers,” in the eyes of Tea Party supporters, are people who do not actively try to better their economic conditions whole-heartedly, but are nevertheless benefiting from the federal government, and as Rick Santelli would put it, “The government is rewarding bad behavior!” (26).1 Even though the overall views of the Tea Party individually differ by group, all agree that the government spending deficit has gotten out of control, and much of this deficit is caused by “non-workers” and illegal immigrants. Because of this unwarranted government spending, Tea Partiers feel that our bloated bureaucracy has become considerably too large to effectively operate, and our youth is becoming more and more irresponsible as their actions continue to yield no negative consequences. The supporters of the Tea Party Movement simply believe that hard work is the key to the American Dream, and the distinction between “those who do not work” and “non-workers” is a fundamental ideology of the grassroot Tea Party Movement. The words of one Tea Party activist sum this idea up best: “I’ve been working since I was 16 years old; I do feel like I should reap the benefit. I’m not looking for a handout, I’m looking to pay out what I’ve paid into” (33).1 Those who participate in the national Tea Party Movement believe that the solution to America’s problems are in their hands, and it is they who are genuinely concerned for they wellbeing of our future generations and our great nation as a whole.
The structure of the Tea Party is also an important factor in determining its strength as a political force, along with its origins and ideologies. Although many skeptics of the Tea Party state that it was initialized by self-interested elite business owners and politicians, I personally believe that the movement is that of one true “grassroot nature.” Most importantly, the Tea Party is structured on a very broad and diverse scale. The movement is known as a “bottom-up” movement because the true power of the Tea Party lies within its individual groups, not its national leaders (for lack of a better word). At the basic level, the Tea Party is formed by hundreds of active local and regional Tea Party groups. Local coordinators, who set up meetings and events with their members, lead these groups. Additionally, regional and national coordinators help to move the Tea Party in a uniform direction and act as the national voice. The primary strength of the Tea Party movement is that it is composed of many, many different organizations and ideological institutions. Some of the organizations that the Tea Party is made up of, but is not controlled by are: American’s for Prosperity, Tea Party Express, the Young America’s Foundation, the Leadership Institute, and Newt Gingrich’s American Solutions for Winning the Future. The authors of Perspectives on Politics state in their article, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, that “links between national advocacy and organizations and local Tea Parties do not seem terribly strong” (29).1 I believe this statement to be entirely true, if not understated. Being a local Tea Party coordinator myself, I have witnessed little if any direct relationships between national organizations and local Tea Party groups.
As stated above, the strength of the Tea Party Movement lies in the weaknesses of its affiliations. Because the Tea Party as a grass root movement is not controlled or affiliated with a single organization, it has the ability to effectively appeal to a large fraction of the American electorate. Rasmussen and Schoen strongly support this idea in their book, Mad as Hell, when they assert that:
Our view is that the movement’s decentralized nature is more of a strength than a weakness. Its leaders may come and go, but the movement is entrenched for the long haul—in whatever forms it may eventually take. It has steadily grown in organization (and in disorganization), in capacity, and in impact, not by becoming one giant merged PAC of the property of one political party, but by maintaining its independence and variety (167).3
In my opinion, this is the idea that leads me to believe that the Tea Party movement is a true American “grassroot” movement. Although self-interested politicians and business elites may be trying to take advantage of Tea Party power, the structure of the movement safeguards it from becoming one organizationally united political front. Interestingly to me, the structure of the Tea Party continuously reminds me of the Founding Father’s intended structure of American government. Not only are the supporters of the Tea Party instinctively organizing in this way, they are also active in promoting the idea of this “bottom-up” organization. One political writer from Hilton Island, South Carolina rights that, “both nationally and locally, the Tea Party Movement has asserted its independence from political parties” (1).4 Furthermore, it is this strength that has allowed the Tea Party to have an effective role on the political stage and has altered the path of the Republican Party.
Because most Tea Party supporters are Republican, the Tea Party has had an immense effect on the Grand Old Party. Many Republicans fear that the Tea Party Movement could split the GOP electorate, and inevitably destroy the Party as a whole. Without question, it is evident that the Tea Party is currently the “primary driving force behind the Republican Party” and has indisputably forced the mainstream of GOP policy to the right (173).3 Like other organizations, the Republican Party itself has tried to make political gains with the Tea Party through marketing its brand. The Republican operated wing of the Tea Party Movement, known as Tea Party Express, is currently controlled by a committee of political action under the advisement of the Republican Party. Tea Party Express has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to promoting Tea Party Candidates in association with the Republican Party, including Scott Brown. Although Tea Party Express was meant to gain a Republican foothold on the Tea Party Movement, it has really only produced another spectrum of the Tea Party that consequently diversified and expanded the movement.
One main source of power that the Tea Party holds over the Republican Party is the fact that it could take enough votes away from Republican leaders to ensure a Democratic victory. Although this is in no way the goal of the Tea Party, this fact alone gives the movement a lot of power on the political stage. Although the Tea Party supporters are “outsiders looking in (285),”2 this does not take away from the truth that the Republican Party cannot simply ignore the Tea Party movement. Many scholars, such as Dick Armey, believe that the Tea Party should completely take over the Republican Party, and make them be the ones “looking in.” Armey believes that the Tea Party Movement should be focus on systematically replacing those Republicans in office who do not fully believe in and advocate the three core principles of the Tea Party, and replace them with those conservatives who do. Furthermore, Armey states that it is necessary to keep a watchful eye on Tea Party candidates once they are elected to keep them from joining the “go-along-get-along club (134)” on Capitol Hill.1 Interestingly, Rasmussen and Schoen point out in their book that Dick Armey himself underwent a “rhetorical transformation” in terms of supporting the Grand Old Party only several months later” (168).3 Other scholars have labeled the Tea Party as a “risky partner for the GOP,” stating that the Tea Party could either rally Republican activism or split the vote between a future Republican Candidate and Tea Party Candidate (35).1
The future of the Republican Party lies in the hands of the Tea Party, and vice versa. If the Republican Party can begin to conform to the strong conservatives values pushed by Tea Partiers, the Republican Party will absorb the Tea Party, but at the same time lose other groups in the electorate who do not support the Tea Party. On the other hand, if the Tea Party does not choose to go along with the Grand Old Party, that could spell disaster for the Republicans as well as the Tea Partiers (although maybe not in the long run if they can maintain support). If this were to occur, the Democratic Party would be sure to flourish in the following years. The Republican Party needs to move further to the right if it is going to continue to gain votes from the Tea Party, and as Patty Weaver (a local Tea Party activist quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) suggests, “We reject the idea that the electoral goals of the Republican Party are identical to the goals of the Tea Party Movement or that this movement is adjunct to the Republican Party” (2).5
If the Tea Party is ever in the position to emerge as a third political party in the American two-party system, there are three things that are key to the success of the movement. First, the Tea Party must become more nationally organized, and eliminate extremists within the movement to maintain validity. Second, the Tea Party must discover a way to encompass the broad energy of the local Tea Party groups, without compromising their independence and diversity. And third, the Tea Party must incorporate charismatic leaders with national appeal to advocate their movement (298).3 Due to the strong support for the Tea Party, it has inevitably moved away from the control of either the Democratic or Republican Party. This is the true power that the Tea Party maintains; it is not large enough currently to be an effective third party, but it is nonetheless a large enough fraction of the electorate to influence the Republican Party to the far right, especially in terms of fiscal policy. The future of America will be determined by the political group that can effectively regain the trust of the American people. The Tea Party Patriots have the ability to make history in terms of either emerging as the first prominent third party since the early 1900s, or forever altering our outdated two-party system by once again forcing representative to reflect the true views of American citizens. The Tea Party Movement has consequently allowed for the “rebranding of conservative Republicanism and has given activists and unsullied standard to mobilize behind” (35). Although the Tea Party may not be a permanent movement, it has nonetheless shifted the Republican Party and American national debate to the right in a dramatic and effective style.
1 John Coggin, Theda Skocpol, and Vabessa Williamson, “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” Perspectives on Politics: A Political Science Public Sphere, March 2011, 25-37.
2 Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe, Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto (New York: HarperCollins, 2010)
3 Scott Rasmussen and Douglas Schoen, Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking our Two-party System (New York, HarperCollins, 2010)
4 Cassie Foss, “Tea Party Organizers Say Movement Spreads in Beaufort County through citizens, not politicians,” Island Packet, March 22, 2011, Newspaper Source Plus.
5 Timothy McNulty and James O’Toole, “Tea Party Here Plans First Anniversary: Conservative Groups Eschews Democrats, Media, and Doesn’t Like GOP Much,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 25, 2011, Newspaper Source Plus.
Alinsky, Saul David. Rules for Radicals; a Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals. New York: Random House, 1971. Print.
Armey, Dick. Matt Kibbe. Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto. New York: HarperCollins, 2010. Print.
Coggin, John. Scokpol, Theda. Williamson, Vanessa. “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.” Perspectives on Politics: A Political Science Public Sphere. 2011, vol. 9.
Foss, Cassie. “Tea Party Organizers Say Movement Spreads in Beaufort County through Citizens, Not Politicians.” The Island Packet [Hilton Head Island] 03 Jan. 2010. Web. 27 Feb. 2010.
O’Toole, James. McNulty, Timothy. “Tea Party Here Plans First Anniversary: Conservative Group Eschews Democrats, Media Doesn’t Like GOP Much, Ether.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 25 Feb. 2010.
Rasmussen, Scott. Schoen, Douglas. Mad As Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking our Two-Party System. New York: HarperCollins, 2010. Print.
Richardson, H. L. Confrontational Politics. New York: Jameson, 2009. Print.
Savage, Michael. Trickle Down Poverty: Stopping Obama’s Attack on Our Borders, Economy, and Security. New York: William and Morrow, 2010. Print.