The kettle boiled but then cooled pretty damn fast. What happened? An analysis of the short-lived Tea Party movement.
The “Tea Party” movement received intense media attention when it emerged in early 2009. Derided by popular media but coddled by conservatives, the movement shaped the outcome of the 2010 midterm elections and has since lost momentum. From an anarcho-cpaitalist point of view, the movement had many positive characteristics at its beginning, but a lack of clear and consistent ideology spelled its doom. Despite the efforts of its stakeholders, the Tea Party has become a tool of the GOP and will ultimately disband as a movement in a few years. At this point, the movement’s likely place in history is someplace between the National Silver Committee and the Reform Party.
The Kettle Boils …
In the beginning the Tea Party was an organic movement, much like Occupy Wall Street. It’s origins are most likely traced to Congressman Ron Paul’s campaign to be the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2008. The “tea party” began as a series of protests over the $430 billion in bailouts from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) of 2008 and the $830 billion in “stimulus” as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The movement’s name was reportedly inspired by CNBC’s Rick Santelli’s on air tirade that called for a new Tea Party to protest a government run amuck. Given these origins, the Tea Party appeared to begin as a libertarian movement, emphasizing the need to address crony capitalism and the influence of special interests on government. The Tea Party was against the actions of both major parties, including the Bush administration’s reckless fiscal policies. As the movement grew, additional protest themes were added: lowering taxes, ending excessive regulation, and curbing the power of the Federal Reserve.
Being composed of frustrated Republicans and libertarians, the Tea Party had a natural overlap on positions typically seen in the Republican Party’s platform. Spokespeople for the movement were careful to distance it from the GOP so to remain an issues-centered movement. The GOP was in the wilderness in 2009, wincing from the Democrat’s taking of the White House, the Senate, and the House. The Tea Party appeared to provide a means back into to power.
The Kettle Whistles…
As the nation began to understand the factors that led to the 2008-09 financial crisis, there was justifiable anger across the populace, both right and left. A calamity of bad government policy, cronyism, and huge financial players following incentives, average citizens who followed rational decisions regarding home ownership and employment decisions ended up getting screwed in the housing and stock market crashes, and the resulting recession and flat economy that followed. The bailouts of big banks and the auto industry left many of these people wondering, “Where is my bailout?” The disaffected person with a conservative political bent was a natural Tea Party supporter. These people wanted to let the world know they were angry, and rightly so.
Although the Tea Party was extremely critical of President Bush, it moved into partisan territory as President Obama’s administration dealt with the recession and aftermath of the crisis. The fiscal stimulus on top of already burgeoning deficits created another wave of angst among small government advocates. But it was President Obama’s goal of addressing the underinsured and ballooning healthcare costs that provided the Tea Party with another casus belli. Billed as a “government takeover” of healthcare, the healthcare reform debates provided the Tea Party the fuel it needed to grow. The bill’s focus was really health insurance and provider payment reform, but the analogy to “socialized medicine” was too easy for pundits to make, so it would be simple for the average conservative. The GOP, which had the stated goal of making Obama a one term president, was quick to follow the Tea Party’s lead on this issue.
The new wave of Tea Partiers (or Tea Baggers, using Bill Maher’s expression) were more traditional right wing and populist. Tea Party rallies become forums for all grievances. While never a pure ideological movement, the new wave of self-identified Tea Party supporters seemed to bring anti-immigration and “culture war” baggage to the movement. At this point, media coverage of the movement had increased, showing the white men in tricornered hats holding extreme anti-Obama placards with swastikas. At the same time the moronic and racist “Birther” movement was active, and rightly or wrongly the Tea Party’s supporters had an association with those wingnuts. Also, the divisive Sarah Palin was still “blowing up” at this time, and she tried to associate herself with the movement in order to capitalize on her celebrity. The popular media was quick to highlight Palin’s association with the Tea Party. To address these image problems and to refocus the key messages of the movement, leaders of local Tea Party chapters spoke in glowing terms of how all types of people were active in the movement (not just angry white guys) and that Tea Party supporters were reportedly “well read” in the Founder’s writings, carrying copies of the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution with them, discussing Ayn Rand and Austrian Economic Theory at their protests.
The left reacted to the Tea Party’s success, pointing out ties to the Koch Brothers and other deep pockets, and claiming the movement was just “astroturf” and not grassroots. The left’s talking heads positioned the movement as some stratagem by the GOP to take advantage of a populist cause which was started in reaction to the GOP’s policies of the last decade. This is when you started hearing a lot about how blue collar conservatives vote against their economic interests by supporting low taxes on the rich and less of a welfare state, as if the Tea Party members were stupid to espouse well-reasoned principles. Of course, the truth is likely to be found someplace in the middle of those views: the average Tea Partier was not an armchair scholar of political economy, nor was he or she a knuckle dragging puppet of the richest 1%.
It seems hard to deny the movement started organically, but its rapid growth in 2009 led to the movement being more structured. A number “supporting organizations” emerged (The Tea Party Express, Tea Party Patriots, and Freedomworks) that were run by political operatives with structured fund raising operations. While claiming there was no centralization or formal party structure, these supporting organizations undoubtedly influenced local Tea Party groups and provided a national communications strategy, ostensibly speaking for the various chapters of the movement. These organizations have been successful in keeping the movement focused on tax reform, opposition to “Obamacare,” balanced budgets, literal adherence to the US Constitution, and ending bailouts.
Upon the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in early 2010, “Obamacare” galvanized the Tea Party movement against the President and the Democratic Congress. This was the opening to integrate the Tea Party within the GOP’s camp. Note that this seems to be a matter of debate: Some claim the Tea Party was always a Republican tool and so it was easily subverted by the GOP. The better argument is the movement was truly organic, and its success allowed it to influence the GOP in 2010, pushing the Republican Party’s platform towards the Tea Party’s positions on key issues.
The Tea Party platform was memorialized in the “Contract From America” (created by a supporting organization of that same name that reportedly aggregated input from Tea Party adherents across the country in order to create a platform):
- Any new bill must have a basis in the US Constitution.
- Ending the cap and trade programs to curb industrial emissions.
- Amend the Constitution to require a balanced budget and a 2/3 legislative vote to increase taxes.
- Tax code simplification, with a limit of 4,543 words – the length of the original Constitution.
- Downsize the federal government, ending programs that do not have Constitutional support and moving more programs to state and local administration.
- Capping federal spending growth every year at a rate not to exceed the sum of the inflation rate plus the percentage of population growth.
- Repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
- Energy policy deregulation and energy independence, a.k.a. “All of the above” policy.
- Requirement that spending earmarks added to bills pass a 2/3 legislative vote.
- Tax cuts, including repeal of “all tax hikes” on “income, capital gains, and death taxes”.
It should not be lost on anyone that while much of the platform repeats popular Tea Party themes (with some corny, simplistic ideas added like a word limit on the tax code, possibly inspired by overuse of Twitter), there was a sudden addition of two of the GOP’s all time favorite hits: ending cap and trade and deregulation of energy, otherwise known as climate change denial. This certainly smelled funny.
In the 2010 midterm elections, the Tea Party punished more moderate Republicans by defeating them in primaries and fielding an impressive number of Congressional and gubernatorial candidates. Granted, there were a number of notable imbeciles in this field, such as Carl Paladino (candidate for NY governor), Christine O’Donnell (candidate for Senate in DE), and Sharron Angle (candidate for Senate in AZ), all of whom lost their races. However, some likely future GOP stars emerged from this class: Marco Rubio (Senator from FL), Rand Paul (Senator from KY), and Mike Lee (Senator from UT). In addition, many incumbent Republicans were quick to align themselves on Tea Party issues, most famously Paul Ryan (Representative from WI and VP nominee) who, in his recent past, voted in favor of small government gems like the Medicare Part D legislation, the TARP, and the auto industry bailout.
The Tea Party was the main element in the GOP’s electoral success in the 2010 mid-terms, notably taking the House of Representatives by adding 63 seats and pushing up its minority in Senate by six additional Senators. Not only was this just reminiscent of 1994, but these huge gains took place only two years after a “realigning” election in 2008, where the Democrats had both the White House and significant majorities in Congress. This quick reversal of fortune proved that 2008 was a fluke and not a realignment of any kind.
However, the 2010 midterms were quite possibly the apex of the movement. The Tea Party Caucus of 61 Congressmen (all Republicans) was soon a lightning rod for media attention. The “no compromise” nature of the Tea Party had spread to the GOP, leading to political gridlock and national frustration over the tone of discourse and the ineptness of the political class, coming to a peak during the debt ceiling debate in the fall of 2011.
The Kettle Cools Off …
The Tea Party movement seemed to lack a meaningful role in the nomination of Republican presidential candidates in the 2012 cycle, with Tea Party Caucus chair Michele Bachman falling flat on her face as a candidate. Although not a member of the Tea Party Caucus, Representative Ron Paul’s presidential campaign took leadership on most of the issues that were near and dear to the hearts of libertarians and Tea Party supporters. Ron Paul would support most Tea Party positions, and to his credit is also anti-war, pro-immigration and anti-Federal Reserve. These are issues the Tea Party opted to punt on in its “Contract” which surely means there would be no agreement within the movement’s supporters on those issues, which is an important consideration to remember. The Tea Party lost steam in the nominating process because the libertarian portion of the Tea Party supported Paul while the more traditional conservative Tea Partiers backed the likes of Bachman, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Mitt Romney. With the end of Ron Paul’s campaign and his impending retirement from Congress, the libertarian minded Tea Party supporters appear to have lost their ideological leader. Mitt Romney’s nomination put many of those libertarian leaning Tea Party supporters into the position of making a vote against Obama rather than one for Romney.
Since 2010, the number of Tea Party local chapters has decreased and support for the movement has declined. The problem is the same one the Reform Party and Occupy Wall Street faced: populist movements fueled by anger lose steam. This is because anger is not ideology and opposition is not policy. Spewing a bilious tirade about Obamacare is much easier than addressing the hard choices that have to be made in order to dismantle a complex corporatist, welfare and military state. After all, what else could the Contract From America imply but some fulfillment of those three noble aims?
A bullet point list of feel-good ideas and tough talk still requires some kind of ideological underpinning. But the Tea Party movement’s central failing is that lack of coherent ideology. To be a movement seeking change on a national scale, there should be a consensus against corporatism, the welfare state, and the military empire. Yet the Tea Party is only somewhat critical of two legs of that accursed three legged stool: corporatism (as far as bailouts and tax reform; other government largess is not as worrisome) and the welfare state (implied by the manic commandment that ‘Thou shall balance thine budget’). It is striking that entitlements — which will eventually bankrupt the United States unless reformed — are not taken on directly by the tough talking, straight shooting Tea Party. But then you see why: a 2011 poll by the Washington Post found 70% of Tea Party supporters opposed any cuts of Medicare or Medicaid, suggesting a breakdown in basic understanding of what it will take to balance budgets and cut taxes. This is a classic case of the horrible politics of populism: give me everything and take nothing from me (reminding one of this fabulous movie scene). However, to the extent it represents Tea Party positions, an important exception to this criticism are the policy positions described by Freedomworks on its website, which seem to follow a more libertarian-minded approach.
Lack of centralization was always heralded as the Tea Party movement’s greatest virtue; yet, without leadership its followers are easily subverted. The addition of the pro-energy industry points to the Contract From America seems to demonstrate this. What did energy independence have to do with bailouts and taxes? It is hard to believe the average Tea Party member had a position on energy policy. A well-informed person knows that reforming the energy policy is code for more profits for oil and other energy companies with close ties in the beltway.
The national spokesmen for the Tea Party painstakingly emphasize that the movement has no positions on foreign policy or cultural issues. But without a position on these issues, Tea Party supporters are easily drawn into support of conservative statists. A recent Cato Institute paper by David Kirby and Emily Ekins concludes that, “[r]oughly half the tea party is socially conservative, half libertarian — or, fiscally conservative, but socially moderate to liberal” which has moved the GOP to become “functionally libertarian, focusing on fiscal over social issues.” Burgett Capital argues the conclusion is more likely the obverse: the GOP has moved Tea Party supporters into the big tent, making them functional Republicans, getting their support for continued statism, culture war issues, and the military state.
A Tea Party supporter may point to the documents from the “founding of the nation” as its ideological basis. This is the common ground of many US libertarians and traditional conservatives: reverence for the Founders as a path to utopia. The former believe the Federal government we wanted to form in 1787 was an expression of Apollonian perfection, while the later are comfortable making a literal interpretation of the US Constitution, as they would any passage of the Bible. The problem is this approach is ahistorical, ignoring over 200 years of legislation and constitutional interpretation. Longing for the past is pointless, as the eggs cannot be unscrambled, meaning a new approach is necessary, starting with the current system of government and figuring out to dismantle it peacefully and without too much social disruption. Furthermore, the emotional reverence for the founding may actually imply a world that would be objectionable to the average Tea Party adherent. A literal read of the Constitution means no standing army, no Medicare, and no laws passed “defending marriage” or outlawing drugs. Most libertarians worth that label would be fine with that outcome; how many self-identified Tea Party supporters, especially the traditional conservatives, would be willing to live in that country? Furthermore, the Constitution never outlawed corporatism or statism in the United States; the 10th Amendment implied the states themselves could pass any laws they wanted so long as they were consistent with the Bill of Rights, meaning high taxes, crony government contracts, huge deficits, and private bailouts would simply occur at a state level and not a federal one.
The idea of angry, salt-of-the-earth Tea Partiers in their tricornered hats reading the Federalist papers and speculating if the TARP was consistent with the original intent of the framers reminds one of a scene from the 1988 film “A Fish Called Wanda” when Wanda confronts Otto about his idiotic decision making, calling him ‘stupid’:
Otto West: Don’t call me stupid.
Wanda: Oh, right! To call you stupid would be an insult to stupid people! I’ve known sheep that could outwit you. I’ve worn dresses with higher IQs. But you think you’re an intellectual, don’t you, ape?
Otto West: Apes don’t read philosophy.
Wanda: Yes they do, Otto. They just don’t understand it.
The reverence for the founders and literal readings of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution do not provide the Tea Party with a strong enough ideology in terms of the 21st century, making it not only ultra-conservative, but borderline delusional by taking an untenable position that the Federal government’s role should simply be scaled back to the level it was in the 18th century. This looks the wrong way in history, and from an ideological point of view it does not go far enough. Religious devotion to the Founding is as ignorant as a blind worship of FDR or Reagan. The Federal government has been an evolving and changing entity, and that process started as soon as the Constitution was ratified in 1788. Energies should be directed away from sentimental wish fulfillment and history lessons, and toward devolving the welfare, military and corporate state while maintaining an open international economy, ensuring maximum freedom and opportunity for personal fulfillment and self-actualization for all.
The Kettle Will Be Emptied …
There are lot of Tea Party themes an evolutionary anarcho-capitalist can agree with, but the movement’s lack of ideological coherence spells its doom. Ultimately the Tea Party will fade away in a few years. A political movement simply cannot be sustained without strong ideology.
For example, the Tea Party does not take positions on foreign policy and national defense, a huge failing. How do you go back to strict adherence with the Constitution and not take a position on the US military empire of today? How would the revered founders react to permanent bases in Japan, South Korea, and Germany? Of saber rattling with Iran? Of the 12 year occupation of Afghanistan? This fence sitting in a tricornered hat is very telling. The Tea Party talking heads spin this by arguing the movement does not want to take positions on foreign policy because that would dilute the focus on fiscal and budgetary issues. Yet 20% of the national budget is defense and security related. What is more likely is self-identifying Tea Partiers range from isolationists to Neocons, and taking a stand means losing voting numbers and dollars.
The same is true for the culture war issues. Ron Paul seems to be a great guy, but a true libertarian should never support someone who wants to curtail a women’s reproductive choices. The Tea Party avoids gay marriage, drug legalization, and abortion rights like a third rail, knowing full and well the libertarians and the traditional conservatives will never agree on those issues. The same is true about immigration reform, where the populist conservatives seek to scapegoat immigrants. The Tea Party proudly espouses a devotion to freedom, yet it is only willing to go to the mat on economic freedom, and does not advocate broad freedoms for all people. This is why it fails.
At the end of the day, the Tea Party movement cynically wants as many supporters as possible, just like the Republicans and the Democrats. The politicians and political operatives invested in the movement want Tea Party supporters to vote and contribute to those candidates and causes that further the general set of goals implied by the Contract From America, which is now solid GOP dogma. Foolishly the Tea Party thinks its influence over the GOP will continue, but in 2010 when the Republican Party said “me too” on the Contract From America, the independent movement ended and the Tea Party as a political subdivision began. Lip service to the Constitution and tough talk on fiscal policy are paid by the GOP, so Tea Party votes and contributions go to further the GOP’s traditional ends: crony capitalism benefiting the defense and oil industries, conducting idiotic culture wars, and keeping dead ideas like Neoconservatism alive.
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