Explaining the Appearance of the Tea Party Movement

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mark Lilla has an article in the April 29, 2010 issue of the New York Review of Books titled “Tea Party Jacobins.”  It is typical Lilla—very well written, philosophical, and witty.  By Lilla’s take, the Tea Party movement is worth taking seriously.  It is a

manifestation of deeper social and psychological changes that the country has undergone in the past half century…. [I]t has given us a new type: the antipolitical Jacobin. The new Jacobins have two classic American traits that have grown more pronounced in recent decades: blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self.

Add to these traits the recent dissolution of “mediating ideas and institutions” and we have a public that feels alienated and disconnected from its government.  “Representative democracy is a tricky system,” Lilla, writes. “[I[t must first give citizens voice as individuals, and then echo their collective voice back to them in policies they approve of.”

Throw into that mix the development of a larger and more complex system of government delving into ever more aspects of life and the proliferation of organized “special” interests, and you have the Tea Party movement.

There is something to this explanation, but I would like to offer another hypothesis to explain the very sudden emergence of the Tea Party movement.   Let me be clear here—my goal is not to demean or dismiss the Tea Party movement. Rather, my aim is to comprehend how it came to be and why it is as it is, e.g., anti-government, anti-elitist, etc.(1)

First, though, before undertaking this bit of political sociology, it is important to recognize that there is considerable diversity amongst the folks who identify with the Tea Party movement.  There are Ayn Randians, evangelicals, birthers, libertarians, and more.

What unites them, and this comes clear from the recent New York Times/CBS poll data, is that they are, nearly to a person, very angry.  This aggrieved state of mind is the filter through which Tea Party identifiers often interpret reality.  Did Obama say that the proliferation of new media can help untruths spread rapidly?  Well, on a Tea Party Facebook page I saw this unobjectionable observance interpreted to mean that ‘Obama doesn’t want anyone speaking up to oppose him. ‘ At last look, 625 persons had given a thumbs up to the accompanying blog post titled, “Obama Hates Technology Now That It Is being Used Against Him.”(2)

This intense anger is a bit of a head-scratcher because the poll data also show that most of these angry persons are doing just fine—generally, they are not jobless; they are not like the impoverished Muslims on the periphery of Paris and society.

So why are Tea Party movement identifiers so angry?  Why do they speak in a language that describes them as horribly put upon by distant forces, as being ignored and robbed by elites?

Thus far, the best I can do is to explain the disconnection between these individuals’ personal well-being and their rage is to say that they have taken a variety of macro-phenomena and merged them together into a vision of America going to Hell thanks to distant elites, puppet-masters in Washington, DC, on Wall Street, and in foreign institutions, like the United Nations.

It is long established that declensionist thinking (the view that society is on the down slide) has deep roots in American history.  So too have Americans long been nervous about distant elites. (The nation was born of rebellion against an overseas King.)  And individualism, well, Lilla is spot on—individualism is more American than apple pie.

If we take these two long-time states of the American mind, and add to them some recent macro-phenomena, we might be able to see why the Tea Party came so recently and why it has the views it does.  Here is a simple equation:

Long-time American habits of mind (declension, fear of elites, individualism)


Recent macro phenomena (growing Hispanic presence in the U.S., September 11th attacks, politically divisive Iraq War, Wall Street corruption, soaring federal debt, Obama, the recent health law, Fox News(3), Internet ubiquity)


The Tea Party movement

The declensionist piece of the equation would help explain why many of the tea partiers exude nostalgia for “going back to the original constitution” and liken themselves to American patriots rebelling against King George.  Indeed, the Tea Party policy proposals for “fixing America” (examples here and here) tend to be more suited to the bygone era of a small night-watchman federal government and tricornes that today’s complex mega-state.  (This, despite the fact that tea party folks tend to be more educated than your average American.)

There might be other recent macro phenomena that should be included, such as the specter of global warming (which many in the Tea Party community dismiss as a hoax perpetrated by Al Gore and liberals.)

I think this is not bad as an initial, rough cut at explaining why the Tea Party movement emerged and took the form that it did.  I would, though, like to hear from readers with their ideas.

Comments, Critiques, and Questions from Readers

1. The February 19, 2009 Rick Santelli comments on CNBC were a key spark in bringing the movement to life.  The feelings were already there, and Santelli tapped them.

2.  Many of the Tea Party movement identifiers’ couch their discontent about government and the state of the U.S. in moral terms.  They are concerned about corruption, and they are dismayed at those who they perceive as failing to fulfill their obligations (to family, to society) and doing things which are “just wrong.”

3. They feel intensely that elected officials and government employees are not listening to the public.

4. The Tea Party’s general views might be similar to those espoused by Senator Robert Taft (“Mr. Republican) and Barry Goldwater. As such, they may be viewed as a revival of a type of mid-twentieth century Republicanism.

5. Interestingly, the Tea Party movement is mostly interested in national domestic politics.  U.S. foreign policy and state and local politics appear to be of much less concern to them.

6. Although the Iraq War polarized the right and left (what with the left’s harsh denunciations—General Betray-Us” and the like) and may have encouraged more on the right question the left’s patriotism, it probably is not a major factor in the appearance of the Tea Party.

7. The article mentions the Internet and Fox News, but what about talk radio?  It has been a political force for a long time.  How does it factor in?

8. Read Michael Barone, “The Gathering Revolt Against Government Spending,” Washington Examiner, May 23, 2010. “This month three members of Congress have been beaten in their bids for re-election — a Republican senator from Utah, a Democratic congressman from West Virginia and a Republican-turned-Democrat senator from Pennsylvania. Their records and their curricula vitae are different. But they all have one thing in common: They are members of an Appropriations Committee.” This is interesting, seeing as voters often are thought of as voting for Members who will bring home the bacon.

9. As a general critique—have you considered doing the same analysis of the hard left?  What about the anti-globalization rioters and others?  How do they fit into an analysis that posits these three long-standing American rtaits—individualism, declension-thinking, and anti-elitism? And are Tea artiers any more angry than the people who protested George W. Bush (like Operation Pink)?  Or what of the hippies who burnt buildings in places like Kent, Ohio?

10. Tea Partiers might be Reagan Republicans, instead of Robert Taft types.

11. Would the Tea Party have appeared had Obama’s administration taken a more centrist policy course in its first 100 days or six months?

12. Are Tea Partiers really overly confident in themselves as Lilla suggests?  Do they suffer from too much indvidualism?  or could the same be said of the hard left, which supports abortion on demand, no restraints on pornography or any type of speech or communications, etc.?

13. Maybe Tea Partiers are like the “new forgotten man” written about by Amity Shlaes.  He’s the guy who works, follows the rule, and gets stuck paying taxes to support others who don’t work or who do stupid things.

14.  The Tea Party manifests a very basic feeling common among Americans: they don’t really like to be told what to do. As government becomes ever more specialized and “expert-ized,” Americans not only feel disconnected from large public institutions that address concerns far removed from their lives, but they also feel “talked down to,” by experts in Washington who know better. Much of the current administration’s projects seem to have an element of “we know better than you” at their core.

15. Read Arnold Kling on the Tea Party at http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2010/05/impressions_of.html, and read this memo of the Winston Group: http://winstongroup.net/2010/04/01/behind-the-headlines-whats-driving-the-tea-party-movement/. The Winston Group’s polling data can be found at http://winstongroup.net/polldocs/new_models/pdf/TeaPartyMemoApril2010.pdf.

16. What about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act?  $770+ billion and people are having a hard time seeing that it is affecting the economy or creating many jobs.  Tea Partier see it as  a big waste of money. And there is Cap and Trade.  Maybe you should lump all the big federal policies and proposed policies together—maybe Tea Partiers are reacting against the general drift in big federal government solutions.

17. The May 29,2010 Washington Post deems Mary Rakovich of Florida as the first Tea Party protester: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/28/AR2010052804673.html.

18. On July 30, 2010, AEI released this document on recent polls that includes data on the public and the Tea Party: http://www.aei.org/docLib/PoliticalReportJuly2010.pdf.


(1) One sees some similarities between the worldview of the current Tea Party movement and the 19th century midwesterners described in Robert L. Kelley, The Cultural Pattern in American Politics: The First Century (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979). One sees even more resemblence between Tea Partiers and those defined as “populists” in Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History (Cornell University Press: 1998). Kazin has commented on the Tea Party at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=123447238 , http://www.nationaljournal.com/njonline/no_20100204_6259.php, and elsewhere.

(2) The author of that piece is also the author of a piece titled “How Kagan Could Kill America.” Elsewhere on this Facebook page, one finds a few hundred persons posting factually inaccurate condemnations of a home sale tax included in the health bill.  (The truth about the tax may be found here.)

(3) The Winston Group’s polling data  indicate 47%  of Tea Partiers say they get their news from Fox News. See p. 3 of http://winstongroup.net/polldocs/new_models/pdf/TeaPartyMemoApril2010.pdf.

(4) A July 6, 2010 blog post by Chris Cilliza of the Washington Post refers to a Gallup survey indicating Tea Partiers are mostly conservative Republicans: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/thefix/republican-party/tea-party-as-the-republican-pa.html

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