The Tea Party, a populist movement that has made bedfellows of Libertarians and Republicans, has garnered national interest over the past year. The movement’s numerous goals include an overall lowering of taxes, the limiting of government spending, and the requirement of a balanced federal budget. Proponents often cite constitutional adherence and smaller federal government as effective ways of achieving those goals, policies supported by the majority of the movement’s political candidates.
In the words of Tea Party activist and now Kentucky Senator-elect Rand Paul, son of former presidential candidate Ron Paul, “We have come to take our government back.”
From the right, the movement’s followers have been exalted as patriots, while the left has branded them as extremists. President Obama himself has criticized the Tea Party for being full of overly critical pundits who fail to provide substantial solutions to the nation’s problems. He accuses them of frequently criticizing government spending, but at the same time being unwilling to accept cuts in other areas of the budget.
Regardless of their support, where did the Tea Party come from? What caused such an intense political organization to arise? In a very short time, the grass roots movement has gripped the national media and greatly affected the recent midterm election.
In the 2008 election, the Democratic Party asserted control over both houses of Congress and the presidency in the wake of what many viewed to be a failed Republican administration. Since then, the government has passed numerous controversial bills, including the stimulus bill of January 2009 and the health care legislation of this past March.
In response to those actions arose the Tea Party, which protested what they perceived to be government interference in the economy and failed management of the taxpayers’ money. Enraged at the government for failing to lower unemployment and planning to refinance mortgages, the Tea Party movement emerged as a series of protests which slowly gained national attention. Typically composed of white, male Christians according to the Bloomberg news poll, the Tea Party has continually grown in support over the past year as the current administration seemingly alienates itself with the political right.
In the months preceding last night’s election, the projected effects of Tea Party activists being elected were much debated. On the one hand were writers like MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, whose scathing Oct. 27 article headline read, “If the Tea Party wins, America loses.” Olbermann cited numerous problems many voters may have with Tea Party policy, including repeal of the 17th Amendment (which allows direct election of senators), elimination of the Department of Education, and raising the minimum age to collect Social Security. While some of these views are only supported by a handful of Tea Partiers, they represented, to Olbermann, views that would reverse progress in America.
On the other hand were Tea Party proponents like the aforementioned Paul, who disagreed, telling reporters, “The Tea Party movement is about saving our country from a mountain of debt.” To him and many of his supporters, a balanced federal budget and decreased government spending are the only ways to get our nation back on track, and electing Tea Party candidates would do just that.
Early last night, with election results pouring in from all corners of the country, the Tea Party achieved two huge victories early on. The aforementioned Paul and Republican candidate Marco Rubio of Florida, both of whom received support from the Tea Party, won Senate seats in their respective states. Rubio’s victory came as a great surprise to national observers, who considered him a relative no-name early in his candidacy. In a similar way, Paul’s quirky and unconventional views (which often align with neither Republicans nor Democrats) were expected to turn many voters away from him. In the end, though, both candidates won relatively handily. The question then becomes: How?
Many critics argue that the emergence of such great political energy on the right is due to the struggling economy. The current circumstances are inciting frustration in voters who feel estranged from their government. When a working class family is struggling to balance their budget and stay out of debt at the same time their government spends well beyond their means, a disconnect is inevitable. However, this surge of energy could foreshadow a dangerous future for the party. DeWayne Wickham wrote in the USA Today that, “There’s a good chance the Tea Party will sputter out of existence as quickly as the Know Nothing movement did.” Many commentators have compared the Tea Party to the short-lived Nativist political movement of the 1840s and 1850s.
To many, though, the election of such libertarian, Tea Party-oriented candidates represents a hopeful future for the party itself. If candidates like Paul and Rubio can experience success, it may be reasonable for non-extreme Tea Party candidates to experience similar success in future elections. Whatever the future holds, it is clear many voters were frustrated with the last two years of American politics and turned out en masse to the polls for yet another change, taking refuge in the right-wing response to a Democrat controlled government – the Tea Party.