On a cold night in December 1773, colonists in Boston burst into the harbor dressed as Native Americans, boarded British ships, and dumped boxes of tea into the harbor. This reckless act of defiance demonstrated their discontent with Britain’s “tyrannical” policy of taxation without representation. Over two centuries later in response to the 2008 government bailout and 2009 stimulus package, the Tea Party movement has adopted their revolutionary moniker. Does this new party have the political clout to become the new dominant conservative party, or is it simply a group of Republicans repackaging their angst over the 2008 election? The Tea Party movement has straightforward goals: limited government, fiscal responsibility, and a free market. Is this a truly new political movement, or more of the same from the beleaguered political right?
The Tea Party movement is a populist protest movement that emerged in 2009 as a result of various “tea party protests” around the U.S. An incredible 18 percent, nearly one-fifth of respondents to an NY Times/CBS poll, identify themselves as Tea Party supporters. The majority of these supporters are white, married, and older than 45, according to the poll. They also tend to be more educated and wealthier than the general public, with predominantly conservative views. Given its makeup, the movement’s call for smaller government and large tax cuts seems old hat. There were even accusations of “astroturfing” in the movement’s birth. “Astroturfing” denotes planned political campaigning under the guise of “grassroots” behavior. As the people involved are political, this seems disingenuous. The Tea Party movement is orchestrated and, in part, funded by FreedomWorks, an immense conservative NGO that supports political activism in many forms and has been a part of many previous “astroturfing” projects.
The disingenuous haze over the movement contributes largely to the misleading nature of its spontaneity. The fact that large moneyed conservative institutions control a movement that promotes smaller government, less oversight, and freer trade should come as no surprise. Greedy private corporations would happily shed burdensome governmentally-enforced environmental regulations and lower taxes while promoting free trade policies to expand their markets overseas.
This is the same line of thinking that prompted the global financial crisis. Ineffectual constraints on the banking system promoted “built-to-fail” systems including bundled subprime mortgages, which abounded because banks took advantage of the ambiguous legal structure. The subprime mortgage fiasco demonstrates the need for governmental restraint when corporations have so much control that they can aversely affect the global economy.
Though individuals behind the Tea Party movement vehemently deny allegations of astroturfing, some of the deepest conservative pockets are in fact funding this Populist Party. Despite the party’s moneyed origin, recent criticism of the party has come from political pundits on Fox News, denigrating the party for its ineffectual leadership and not giving the party a high survival forecast. There may also be an inherent difficulty in instituting a new party within the U.S.’s two-party system.
It may seem that the Tea Party is a new, vibrant political revolution that is reinvigorating conservative voters in America. Its ideals, however, are not anything new or revolutionary: they are traditional conservative views repackaged and recycled by the conservative elites, reusing incendiary speech and fear-politicking to prevent positive change and limit government power and regulatory ability.
This “new” political movement, although initially viewed as provocative, has failed to incite a majority following due to the elitist, laissez faire attitude of Tea Party promoters and funders. While this “revolution” has inspired some, the engrained two-party system naturally resists the emergence of a third party. It seems unlikely that enthusiasm for Tea Party politics will continue.