How the Tea Party Works

The Tea Party was born out of outrage over the federal government's costly initiative to rescue the U.S. economy from a debilitating recession. See more election memorabilia pictures.
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On the night of Dec. 16, 1773, about 150 American colonists boarded a trio of ships in the Boston Harbor and hoisted hundreds of tea-stocked chests into the surrounding water [source: Silverman. The Boston Tea Party was the result of simmering resentment against the British government that had finally boiled over into outrage. American colonists lacked any direct representation in parliament, and the government overseas had been levying a series of taxes on them, sparking the revolutionary war cry, "no taxation without representation." Demonstrating against the Britain's fiscal manipulation that wintery night, the Massachusetts colonists organized one of the first major acts of rebellion that would eventually herald the American Revolution.

On Jan. 21, 2008, long after the United States had divorced itself from Great Britain and become responsible for its own financial policies, a plunge in stock prices officially marked the beginning of an economic recession [source: Harris]. As unemployment spiked around the country, a newly elected Obama administration began piecing together a massive stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, intended to reinvigorate American banks and businesses like pouring gasoline into a car's empty tank. But not everybody favored the federal government investing more than $800 billion into the recovery effort, and revolutionary-era mantras, including "no taxation without representation" began stirring among some politically conservative groups.


Even before President Obama officially took office, a part-time trader posted a provocative directive on an online Wall Street forum that went viral. Riled by the notion of the government dipping into the public coffers in order to bail out private institutions, Graham Makohoniuk fired off, "Mail a Tea Bag to Congress & Senate" on the Market Ticker Forums [source: Skarda]. As the 21st-century Boston Tea Party spirit quickly spread among likeminded conservatives dismayed by the Obama administration's stimulus package and dwindling job and retirement prospects, tea bags began arriving in Congress members' mailboxes, protests sprang up in hundreds of cities, and within weeks, the Tea Party movement was born.

Birth of the Tea Party: A Timeline

The Tea Party often is associated with prominent names like former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, but the person responsible for initially getting the feet on the street for the movement's first rallies was far-removed from big-ticket politics. Washingtonian Keli Carender was working as a math and résumé writing teacher at a non-profit when she decided to put together what's considered the first Tea Party rally in Seattle [source: Kaste]. On Feb. 16, 2009, before the Tea Party had mushroomed into a formalized entity, Carender relied on blogging and social media to attract about 200 people to a protest against the federal government's economic stimulus package [source: All Things Considered].

The movement received its first major public attention three days later when CNBC commentator Rick Santelli called for a "Tea Party" on national television. Referred to as "the rant heard 'round the world," Santelli argued against the administration's mortgage bailout plan on the floor Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and the clip went viral online [source: CNBC]. The next day Tea Party enthusiasts dotted around the country came together via conference call to form the National Tea Party Coalition, and on April 15, 2009, up to 500,000 supporters participated in the movement's first "Tax Day" protests [source: CNN]. And that spring, with the Obama administration putting the legislative wheels in motion for its future healthcare overhaul, Tea Party fury continued to mount around three primary platforms [source: Stone]:


  • Cutting off additional public spending and halting the expansion of the federal government.
  • Stopping any increase in taxes.
  • Balancing the federal budget by eliminating legislative earmarks.

During its first year, the Tea Party, much like the more politically liberal Occupy Wall Street movement, attracted intensive media coverage. In January 2010, for instance, the Economist magazine named the Tea Party "America's most vibrant political force," partially due to its success with helping elect Scott Brown, Massachusetts' first Republican senator in 30 years [source: The Week]. But while its frequent and colorful protests, typically featuring activists dressed up in colonial costumes and carrying around copies of the U.S. Constitution, were effective attention-grabbers, the movement had yet to coalesce into a unified body. To be clear, the intent of the Tea Party wasn't to form a viable political third party, but vet candidates and causes and provide national exposure to their elections.

On Feb. 5, 2010, the Tea Party kicked off its first national convention, headlined by Sarah Palin. Six hundred delegates from local Tea Party chapters converged to get energized, hash out objectives and prepare for the upcoming midterm Congressional elections that posed a prime opportunity to oust the Democratic Party from its majority position. The convention also provided a better glimpse into who exactly comprised the Tea Party ranks.


Who is the Tea Party?

Older, white men make up a majority of Tea Party supporters.
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The so-called "Tea Party godmother," Keli Carender who organized the movement's first anti-economic stimulus demonstration in Seattle, Wash., isn't your typical supporter. Carender was 28 years old when she kick-started the wave of protests, which tended to attract older voters fired up against the Obama administration and its economic and healthcare-related policies. In April 2010, CBS News and the New York Times surveyed American adults and self-identified Tea Party backers, and culled the following snapshot of the conservative crusade [source: Montopoli]:

  • 89 percent white
  • 59 percent male
  • 75 percent over 45 years old
  • 54 percent identify as Republican
  • 73 percent self-described as "conservative"
  • 36 percent live in the South
  • 38 percent attend a weekly religious service
  • 37 percent graduated from college

The Tea Party initially centered on an opposition to the federal government interfering in economic matters, preferring the private sector to fend for itself and leave taxpayer dollars alone. The CBS News and the New York Times survey also found a basic distaste for President Barack Obama -- his administration's policies aside -- as the top motivator for Tea Party activism [source: Montopoli]. Broadening the scope of Tea Party members' concerns, a February 2011 poll conducted by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center identified same-sex marriage and abortion as social issues they commonly disapprove of [source: Clement and Green]. And compared to the average voter, Tea Party activists were more likely to cite religion as the determining factor of their political and social ideologies [source: Clement and Green].


Those religious and social influences also set apart the Tea Party from its most similar political counterpart, libertarianism. Whereas the Tea Party and the Republican Party overlap on many fiscal and social issues, both tea partiers and libertarians share a deeper distrust of rank-and-file politicians to accomplish their goals of drastically limiting the reach of government. For that reason, many Tea Party platforms echo the libertarian ethos of eradicating and defunding government programs, and some consider Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the de facto libertarian leader, to be the Tea Party's "intellectual godfather" [source: The New York Times]. But actually, the Tea Party skews more to the right in many ways than libertarianism, and its intensive demands have had notable ripple effects in Washington, D.C.


Tea Party: From Protest to Political Powerhouse

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin became an early face of the Tea Party.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

By summer 2011, the Tea Party had become a full-fledged political powerhouse that boasted a series of electoral victories and sizeable popular support. According to public opinion polls, 25 percent of Americans held a positive view of the grassroots effort [source: Crowley]. With the U.S. government on the verge of defaulting on its debt obligations if Congress didn't pass legislation to raise the debt ceiling, the Tea Party once again emerged as the most vocal, forceful group against the measure. Tea Party-affiliated members of the House of Representatives publicly decried the borrowing increase as yet another example of Washington shirking off its loan burden onto taxpayers, and as a result, the final legislation included a compromise of massive spending cuts that irked congressional Democrats [source: Crowley].

Previously building its momentum, the movement had flexed its muscles during the November 2010 midterm elections in which activists hit the streets to lobby for Tea Party-approved Republican candidates. Although the initiative didn't snag enough Senate seats away from the Democratic Party to end their majority status, the Tea Party was acknowledged for turning the U.S. House of Representatives back to a Republican majority, much to their delight [source: CNN]. That showdown also introduced a crop of Tea Party-loving conservative politicians into government, including Sen. Rand Paul from Kentucky, Sen. Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania and Florida Rep. Allen West.


Although the Tea Party had prided itself on its outsider status, swaying the national political conversation from outside traditional Washington, D.C., networks, with those midterm election successes it had worked its way to the U.S. Capitol. In June 2010, Tea-Party-favorite Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Republican from Minnesota, registered the House Tea Party Caucus, made up of 28 founding representatives [source: CNN]. In January 2011, Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican, followed suit, and a three-person Senate Tea Party Caucus was established [source: Sonmez].

The rise of the Tea Party from a protest collective to political powerhouse hasn't occurred without controversy, however. The movement, for example, has been linked to conservative Kansas billionaires David and Charles Koch who have been criticized for funneling millions into attack ads and campaigns to oust Democratic politicians [source: Negrin]. Moreover, people have disagreed with supporters' religion-infused approach to evaluating candidates and issues, not to mention their strident opposition to the Obama administration's economic stimulus plan and Affordable Healthcare Act.

Some members also have been criticized for using inflammatory language and rhetoric; in one instance at a March 2010 Tea Party rally, news media reported some protesters directing racist and homophobic slurs at passing Democratic congress members, including former civil rights leader and Georgia Rep. John Lewis [source: The Week]. De facto leaders, including Sarah Palin, have publicly urged activists to distance themselves from fringe or extremist opinions expressed within Tea Party ranks. But as the party continues to define its structure, purpose and message, some also wonder whether it will survive for the political long haul.


Will the Tea Party Last?

No Tea Party favorites, such as Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, won the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

One measurable downside to the Tea Party's success has been mounting public opposition. Supporters haven't drastically dropped off, but as its profile has increased and become a household name, the Tea Party has attracted a host of detractors in a short amount of time. According to an April 2010 poll commissioned by CBS News and the New York Times, 21 percent of respondents viewed the Tea Party favorably, whereas 18 percent held an unfavorable perception of the conservative movement [source: Campbell and Putnam]. Just over a year later, the percent of Tea Party fans remained steady, but its critics had swelled to 40 percent; a Gallup poll from April 2011 similarly found 47 percent of Americans weren't behind the Tea Party cause [source: CNN]. In addition, core Tea Party activists engaged with local grassroots efforts to promote and vote in favored candidates is likely quite small; by one estimate from Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz, it comprises an estimated 5 percent of the American electorate [source: Balz].

After the 2010 midterm congressional elections steeped in Tea Party activism and Republican victories, the movement shifted its sights to the 2012 presidential election. That showdown presented the chance to oust the enemy-in-chief of the Tea Party: President Barack Obama. Despite the presence of Tea Party-approved contenders for the Republican nomination, including Herman Cain, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the Republican Party at large selected the more moderate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Some pundits interpreted the Tea Party's inability to push one of their more ideologically aligned candidates to the Republican National Convention as a signal of its dwindling strength, but others emphasize that ridding the White House of President Obama would be a cause for Tea Party celebration no matter who takes his place [source: Gonyea].


One point many political commentators and experts agree on is that the future of the Tea Party rests less on how it can defeat the Democratic Party than how it can get along with the Republican establishment. A majority of Tea Party activists identify as Republican, and in many ways, it merely exists as a sort of special interest group within the party, an inevitable product of political polarization in the United States [source: Balz]. And unless the movement can continue in future elections to push its ultra-conservative, handpicked candidates into office, its followers may gradually blend back into the established Republican fold. Given the partisan nature of contemporary American politics, however, guests may come and go, but the Tea Party likely won't be over anytime soon.

Author's Note

When I wrote How Occupy Wall Street Works in early 2012, the Tea Party popped up in my research as something of a conservative version of the anti-Wall Street protest movement. Political and social ideologies aside, the two groups do share much in common in terms of their grassroots approach to influencing government, as well as the flurry of media attention they've received for their vocal efforts to reform America. But while Occupy Wall Street focused on spreading its message beyond American borders, the Tea Party has remained decidedly U.S.-centric, and its focus has paid off in elections won and congressional pressure exerted. But by virtue of positioning itself on the far right end of the political spectrum, the Tea Party has become one of the most controversial and derided groups in the nation, blamed for brewing infighting and partisanship in Washington, D.C. Only time -- and possibly the outcome of the 2012 presidential election -- will tell if an inherently controversial group, like Occupy Wall Street, will survive the turbulence of modern American politics.

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