The Tea Party

By | Updated July 15, 2016 7:42 PM UTC

It’s called the Tea Party, but you’ll never see it on a ballot. It’s an amorphous movement favoring small government, gun rights and tax cuts and it’s been a force in U.S. politics since it helped Republicans win the House in 2010. Its political skills and outside money mobilized a strain of discontented conservatives that has pulled the Republican Party to the right. At the same time, its anti-incumbent fervor, aversion to any compromise with Democrats and organizational savvy has bedeviled Republican Party leaders.

The Situation

While the Republican’s likely nominee for president, Donald Trump, doesn’t share Tea Party views on issues like cutting government benefits, he did choose an early Tea Party supporter, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, as his vice presidential running mate. Some Tea Party bloggers still found fault with Pence’s record on free trade and immigration. The movement has a history of turning on Republicans. It was behind the primary election defeat of House majority leader Eric Cantor in June 2014 after he voted to raise the debt ceiling. Then the group’s Congressional sympathizers, organized under the Freedom Caucus, rebelled against John Boehner, the man they’d helped make House speaker in 2010, because he wasn’t sufficiently aggressive in his dealings with House Democrats and President Barack Obama. Boehner resigned as speaker in September 2015. While the Tea Party calls itself “a spontaneous force” and touts support from small donors, significant factions are bankrolled by millionaires and billionaires. Its core beliefs tend to lean toward libertarian strains. Various factions don’t always agree with one another, particularly on issues like immigration. Many in the movement hold positions that overlap with the religious right, though Tea Party groups are more likely to quote the U.S. Constitution than the Bible.

The Background

The Tea Party’s birth is often listed as Feb. 19, 2009, during the depths of the recession. That morning, CNBC’s Rick Santelli summoned memories of the Boston Tea Party, the 1773 revolt by American colonials against British taxation without representation. In a rant from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, he asked why Americans should have to “subsidize the losers’ mortgages” by propping up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Traders around him began cheering. “We’re thinking about having a Chicago tea party in July,” Santelli continued. The fuse was lit and local activists began using the Internet to organize. During the summer of 2009, angry conservatives began disrupting public meetings held by Democratic members of Congress with complaints about health care reform, energy policy and the bailout of the auto industry.

The Argument

Democrats and some establishment Republicans see the Tea Party as an obstructionist fringe willing to go to destructive extremes to get its way, even shutting down the federal government. They also cite the Tea Party’s opposition to raising the federal debt ceiling, immigration-law revisions and farm legislation as examples. Among Tea Party adherents, deal-making and compromise are often equated with weakness and a dereliction of constitutional obligations. They say their perseverance has narrowed the federal deficit and kept spending down. In 2014, the business and establishment wing of the Republican Party was able to nominate candidates it wanted on ballots because the Tea Party brand has tarnished with time. It was blamed for the unpopular government shutdown in 2013 and for backing weak candidates who kept Republicans from winning the Senate in 2012. In November 2010, arguably the movement’s high point, 32 percent of Americans surveyed by Gallup said that they considered themselves Tea Party supporters. That number had fallen to 17 percent by October 2015.

The Reference Shelf

  • Cato Institute pollsters concluded in 2013 that the Tea Party is a libertarian movement focused on economic rather than social issues.
  • From Bloomberg Businessweek, “The Tea Party’s Pyrrhic Victory.”
  • A Washington Post article: “Has Donald Trump revived the tea party? Not quite.”
  • The National Review declared the Tea Party dead in January 2016. 
  • An American Spectator article makes the case that Andrew Jackson was the first Tea Party president.

Annie Linskey contributed to the original version of this article. 

First published June 17, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
John McCormick in Chicago at jmccormick16@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Anne Cronin at acronin14@bloomberg.net