The Tea Party

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It’s called the Tea Party, but you’ll never see it on a ballot. It’s an amorphous movement favoring small government, gun rights and tax cuts and it’s been a force in U.S. politics since it helped Republicans win the House in 2010. Its anti-incumbent fervor and organizational savvy have also bedeviled Republican leaders, by nominating insurgent candidates who won primaries before losing general elections. Those losses ruined Republican efforts to gain control of the U.S. Senate in 2010 and 2012. To measure the Tea Party by its candidates’ wins or losses is to miss its full impact: Its political skills and outside money have mobilized a strain of discontented conservatives to pull the Republican Party to the right.

The Situation

The Tea Party calls itself “a spontaneous force” and touts support from small donors, but significant factions are bankrolled by millionaires and billionaires. Half a dozen national groups have emerged as centers for organizing and fundraising. These groups have prompted criticism that the Tea Party spirit has been co-opted by leaders who are as focused on fattening their wallets as electing candidates. Pollsters estimate about one in five U.S. voters consider themselves part of the movement. Core beliefs tend to lean toward libertarian strains. Various factions don’t always agree with one another, particularly on issues like immigration. Many in the movement hold positions that overlap with the religious right, though Tea Party groups are more likely to quote the U.S. Constitution than the Bible.

Source: Bloomberg National Polls
Source: Bloomberg National Polls

The Background

The Tea Party’s birth is often listed as Feb. 19, 2009, during the depths of the recession. That morning, CNBC’s Rick Santelli summoned memories of the Boston Tea Party, the 1773 revolt by American colonials against British taxation without representation. In a rant from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, he asked why Americans should have to “subsidize the losers’ mortgages” by propping up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Traders around him began cheering. “We’re thinking about having a Chicago tea party in July,” Santelli continued. The fuse was lit and local activists began using the Internet to organize. Fox News amplified the discontent, with Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity stoking anger at the bailout of banks and other financial institutions. Other news organizations took notice during the summer of 2009, when House passage of a bill to create pollution markets and congressional debate over health-care reform unleashed more conservative anger and activists began disrupting public meetings held by members of Congress.

The Argument

Democrats and some establishment Republicans see the Tea Party as an obstructionist fringe willing to go to destructive extremes to get its way, even shutting down the federal government. They also cite the Tea Party’s opposition to raising the federal debt ceiling, immigration-law revisions, Hurricane Sandy recovery funds and farm legislation as examples. Among Tea Party adherents, deal-making and compromise are often equated with weakness and a dereliction of constitutional obligations. They say their perseverance has narrowed the federal deficit and kept spending down. In 2014, the business and establishment wing of the Republican Party had the upper hand and was able to nominate candidates it wanted on ballots in November. Defeating Tea Party candidates became easier because the brand has tarnished with time. It was blamed for the unpopular government shutdown in 2013 and for backing weak candidates who kept Republicans from winning the Senate in 2012. In November 2010, arguably the movement’s high point, 61 percent of Republicans and independents who lean that way supported the movement, according to the Gallup Poll. That number had fallen to 41 percent by April 2014.

The Reference Shelf

  • Bloomberg News looked at the transformation of two important Tea Party groups as the 2014 political season began.
  • Cato Institute pollsters concluded in 2013 that the Tea Party is a libertarian movement focused on economic rather than social issues.
  • The Weekly Standard analyzed “The Two Faces of the Tea Party” in 2010.
  • From Bloomberg Businessweek, “The Tea Party’s Pyrrhic Victory.”
  • An American Spectator article makes the case that Andrew Jackson was the first Tea Party president.

(This QuickTake includes a corrected date for the Gallup Poll showing a decline in Tea Party support.)

First Published June 17, 2014

To contact the writers of this QuickTake:

John McCormick in Chicago at jmccormick16@bloomberg.net

Annie Linskey in Washington at alinskey@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this QuickTake:

Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

Anne Cronin at acronin14@bloomberg.net