The Tea Party Movement: a populist attack on the American conservative movement?

img1img2Seen from Europe, the Tea Party movement may be viewed as an American curiosity full of strange and colorful characters feeding on the slow decay of representative democracy and the anger of people directly affected by the economic crisis. Actually, the exotic “American-ness” of the movement also serves as an excuse on this side of the Atlantic to brush off the contradictions and the tensions that spring to the eye of the observer: the Tea Party movement has no identifiable leader or spokesperson, no structure to which it can be immediately assimilated and quantitatively little representation in Congress or the State legislatures; yet at the same time, the Tea Parties are highly organized, well financed, capable of training their activists and, like no populist movement before them, enjoy open and almost unlimited access to mainstream media.

Even though they represent a minority of the Republican majority in either one of the two Houses of Congress (around 60 in the House, 4 in the Senate), Tea Party senators and representatives are often viewed as pivotal in the success of the Republican Party in opposing President Obama’s legislative agenda and in imposing conservative reforms, notably on the question of the budget.

This is despite the fact that not a single one of the demands of the movement can realistically be implemented into law, specially as the goals of fiscal discipline and shrinking the size of the Federal Government run counter with a strong attachment to costly social programs at home – such as Medicare and Social Security – and to a powerful military apparatus, regardless of the objectives and missions it is assigned.

Consider that in various publications and speeches, the Tea Parties have asked for: the repeal of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments to the Constitution which, allegedly, for the first allows the unlimited growth of the Federal Government because of the constitutional possibility it creates to levy an income tax, and for the second, perverts the balance of US federalism by providing for the direct election by the people of US Senators, rather than an indirect election through the State legislatures; the termination of the Department of Education and/or of the Interior for they are purportedly in violation of the distribution of powers according to the Constitution between the Federal Government and the States; the introduction of a flat tax to replace the progressive federal income tax; the adoption of a balanced budget amendment which would make it impossible for the US Congress to vote a budget that would not be balanced, regardless of the economic circumstances. The latter idea is often advanced as a logical solution: many States do have a balanced budget provision in their constitution so there is no reason the principle should not apply at the federal level.

Finally the Tea Parties, whose culture is anti-Washington and anti-institutional, heavily insist on fighting alleged graft and corruption in the Capital City and on restoring American pride abroad. Again, the latter point is interesting: the movement is ferociously critical of President Obama and kept alive the “birther” controversy as long as the President did not publicly release his long-form birth certificate because they believe he has abandoned a central tenet of conservatism, the concept of American exceptionalism.

The ultimate contradiction of the movement can be found in the contrasted evaluations of its electoral potential. First one must be reminded that the Tea Parties are very a recent phenomenon which appeared in the early part of Barack Obama’s first term. Most observers credit the “birth” of the movement to Rick Santelli, a CNBC financial journalist who went into an on-air rant about government waste on February 19, 2009, bemoaning the sordid example the Federal Government allegedly set by rescuing or bailing out banks and creditors in the mortgage crisis. So the Tea Parties can, at of this writing, only be judged by the standard of the 2010 mid-term elections in which their record is a mixed one. Indeed, the Tea Parties have brought energy and enthusiasm to primary elections in which they proved to be a dominant player in selecting Republican candidates. All observers concur on how difficult it would be for the Republican Party, in any election, to mobilize and get out the vote without the Tea Party converts. Yet at the same time, it has to be observed that the composition of the electorate is different from primaries to the general election, and from mid-term elections to presidential elections. The sociology of the Tea Party movement, which numerous studies have described, is indeed that of a group of voters who are generally older, more educated, whiter and more conservative than the average 1. This profile gives the Tea Party an exceptional advantage in (Republican) primaries in which the average voter fits those characteristics exactly. But it is indeed less of an asset in the general elections in which voters are usually less radical in their views and more diverse and centrist.

This contrast is in evidence in the sequence between the Republican primaries in the spring of 2010 and the general election in November. News coverage in the spring was dominated by the capacity of the Tea Party candidates to unseat a certain number of “traditional” politicians and to nominate men and women with no prior experience. The drive of the Tea Party movement was both violently anti-Washington and anti-politics as usual and acquainted political experience and years of presence in Washington with corruption and the preservation of the status quo. This is indeed one of the main populist characteristics of the movement and yet despite its “throw the bums out” rhetoric, the movement is exclusively limited to the Republican Party and made no inroads in the Democratic primaries. Mechanically though, the rhetoric profited the Republicans who had fewer incumbents and thus fewer seats to defend as they were a relatively small minority.

In the general election, the Republicans regained the majority in the House (which they had lost in 2006) and gained six seats in the Senate where they now have 47 seats. Altogether, among the candidates clearly affiliated to the Tea Party movement 86 lose and 46 win. Exit polls also show that 56% of voters declared that the Tea Parties were not a factor in their vote. Yet, the victory of the Republican Party is at best a mitigated one, and this for multiple reasons:

  • since the unemployment figures remained stable around 9.6%, it was totally predictable that the incumbent party would lose seats and as early as May, every reputable analyst predicted a Republican victory in the House of Representatives and major gains for the Republican Party in the Senate. Yet, only in the worst case scenario for the Democrats would the minority party regain the majority in the upper chamber as Republicans needed to win 10 seats, a very tall order knowing that the Democrats were defending 19 seats altogether. A Republican victory was possible only if their candidates defeated more than half of the incumbent party nominees, which is nearly impossible to achieve, specially knowing the advantages of incumbency 2.
  • to this one may add that 2010 came after two major Democratic victories in congressional elections, which means that after 2008 the Democratic Party had reached its maximum electoral potential and could hardly go up from there.
  • finally, with the exception of 2002, which was indeed an exceptional election, all midterm elections in the first term of a president tend to be losses for the President’s party.

So altogether the Republican victory was indeed expected and our claim is that it could have been a landslide, had it not been for the Tea Parties. In effect, three losses in the Senate in Colorado, Delaware, and Utah can be directly ascribed to weak Tea Party candidates who had actually won primaries over established politicians: Ken Buck, Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle effectively ran campaigns which were so dysfunctional as to become late-night-comedy-show stars. Had the Republican Party won those three seats which were fully within reach, then the balance of power in the Senate would have been 50:50, but then two centrist and very independent senators with a voting record often closer to the Republicans than to the Democrats would have easily been persuaded to switch party allegiance; Ben Nelson in Nebraska and/or Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut would have taken no electoral risk in doing so (the former is a Democrat in a heavily Republican state, the latter an Independent who was defeated in the Democratic primaries and was a constant support of President Bush’s foreign policy) and in a better position, as members of the majority party, to serve the interests of their state.

In short the political landscape today would be very different it were not for the Tea Party running those three candidates in the senatorial elections. Indeed, on the questions of the 2011 budget (which Congress had still not voted in April of 2011), of the preparation of the 2012 budget, of the necessity to raise the debt ceiling of the United States and on the possible repeal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act the situation would be very different if the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress rather than just the Lower House. It also should be clear that at a time when the United States is engaged in military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lybia while dealing at the same time with a transformational process in Arab regimes, the special responsibilities of the US Senate in foreign affairs would indeed have given the Republicans a formidable bargaining chip with President Obama had they won the majority in 2010.

Newsweek cover, November 23, 2009: “How do you solve a problem like Sarah? She’s bad news for the GOP – and for everybody else, too.”

Newsweek cover, November 23, 2009: “How do you solve a problem like Sarah? She’s bad news for the GOP – and for everybody else, too.”

Not only can the Tea Parties be held responsible for diminishing the size and the import of the Republican victory in 2010 but they also represent, as of 2011 and leading to the 2012 elections, a liability for the Republican as much as an asset. This claim can be supported in the following way:

  • first there are telling symptoms about the state of the Republican Party: at this point in time, which is exactly 8 months before the first primaries, the field of Republicans vying for the nomination is shallow and narrow and very few candidates have either put together solid campaign organizations or raised significant amounts of cash. The news in the campaign focuses more on who has decided not to run than on identifying a front-runner. This is very different from previous presidential elections when the field was largely determined almost immediately after mid-term elections. There are multiple explanations to that, most of them circumstantial, but overall what dominates is the idea that the candidates that are generating interest and enthusiasm among conservative voters are unelectable (Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul…) and that those favored by the establishment of the Party are determined to keep a low profile until very late in the game so as to avoid having to be vetted as a front-runner by the Tea Parties and on Fox Television (Mitch Daniels, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney…). What this shows is that the Tea Parties have introduced in the Republican Party a form of ideological fundamentalism which is incompatible with governing. Indeed, the main weakness of the latter three aspirants to the Republican nomination is that they have all exercised positions of power in which they struck compromises that are unpalatable to voters looking for conservative ideological purity. For example, as governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney implemented a form of heath care plan that strangely resembles what is commonly known as “Obamacare” and supported abortion rights in a very liberal state; Mitch Daniels, before becoming the governor of Indiana, was at the head of the Office of Management and Budget under President Bush and oversaw budgets that were unpopular with conservatives as they represent what they call “big government conservatism”. Any potential Republican aspirant to the nomination in 2012 must face a harrowing examination of his/her conservative credentials by self-appointed guardians of the conservative temple in the Tea Party. Even though a presidential election with an incumbent president running is essentially a referendum, it nonetheless remains that the challenger party damages its chances by making it difficult for 2/3 front runners to emerge rapidly.
  • the 32 freshmen Republicans who were elected to the House of Representatives in 2010 and who are directly affiliated to the Tea Party movement were for most of them elected in districts that were traditionally leaned Democratic. It is easy to explain why: in Democratic strongholds, the Republican nomination was less attractive to seasoned politicians and thus favored Tea Party affiliated candidates with little or no prior experience of elective office. In 2012, they will be in the weakest position possible, that of freshmen incumbents having to defend their seat on a voting record that will be difficult to sell to the voters. Indeed, their election was the result of a protest vote which did not give them any programmatic mandate. This means that those freshmen Republicans must either vote no on most measures that are put to the vote because of ideological purity and the supposed dangers of compromise, which also means breaking away from the party leadership and from party discipline in a chamber that rewards discipline and respect of leadership, or vote yes on issues such as raising the ceiling of the federal debt with the risk of appearing to betray the ideals of the Tea Party on taxation and the size of the federal government.
  • in the Senate, the Tea Party movement has even less of hold on power: first of all, senators are wary of joining caucuses (such as the Tea Party caucus) because that infringes on their individual power and constrains them into a discipline which has few rewards; then the High Chamber, even more so than the Lower House, is organized based on seniority and few Tea Party members have accumulated the years necessary to chair a committee or exercise a leadership function; then, the years 2007–2008, when the Republicans returned to the minority but nonetheless managed to effectively support President Bush and thwart the Democratic agenda proved how valuable party discipline is, especially for the minority in a chamber where 41 votes (the number of votes necessary to sustain a filibuster) can get you a long way in shaping the agenda of the institution. It would indeed be highly dangerous for Tea Party senators to ignore that rule, specially in a context where the Senate really seems within reach of the Republicans in 2012, as in 24 of the 33 states that are voting that year the seats are held by a Democrat. A gain of four seats would then return the Senate in the red column. It would be taking an enormous risk for the Tea Party movement to atomize the Republican Party in this context.
  • finally, one can defend the point that the Republican victory in the 2010 elections was actually as much of “shellacking” for the Democratic Party – to use President Obama’s own words – as a blessing. In a difficult economic context with unemployment remaining high and the blames flows naturally to the majority party, because of the present situation of divided government, Republicans and Democrats will now share the blame as well as the credit. As much as the 2006 and 2010 mid-term elections demonstrated that a political party can win big without making any kind of real programmatic offer, basically just running on the fuel of voter anger, presidential elections, even with an incumbent running, demand that the challenging party articulate a platform and run on a record. This means that the Republican Party needs the 112th Congress to be somewhat productive, a proposition which is completely at odds with more polarization in an institution which presently suffers from exactly that, excessive polarization with the inability to reach compromise. The Tea Party movement brings to Congress a more polarized nature and thus hampers the ability of the legislative branch to serve as a check on the presidency.

In any case the future of the Tea Party movement is somewhat murky and this for multiple reasons: first of all, it is essentially a protest movement which appeared within the American conservative movement at a time when the latter was in the middle of a profound redefinition after the eight years of the Bush Administration which led to a deep transformation of the conservative ideology, saw some of its goals achieved, exhibited weaknesses and dead-ends, and conditioned ideological mutation and transformation upon a form of institutional change which contributed to redefining the imperial presidency. But the institutional model that was put into place by the Bush Administration to implement its agenda runs counter to the libertarian streak which characterizes the Tea Party movement.

Besides demands that, as we saw, cannot be implemented into law, the Tea Party movement, as was well demonstrated by Williamson, Skocpol and Coggin, feeds on the ideas that redistribution of income and benefits favors the “undeserving” and that “hard-working Americans” are under-represented in a dysfunctional political system. What the three political scientists call “racial, ethnic and generational resentment” and the feeling of being disconnected from government are almost by-products of those two major themes 3. The three major areas of the law where those themes coagulate are welfare, taxation, and immigration. Looking at those issues from the Tea Party side, there is relatively little hope of transformational legislation on any of those issues: the debate on the Welfare State focuses on the implementation or repeal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the privatization of Medicare, which Representative Paul Ryan, the chairman of the Committee on the Budget, suggested in his 2012 budget plan, has been met with extreme care, even within the ranks of the Republican Party; the debate on taxation is largely constrained by the budget deficit; both parties are divided on the question of immigration and there is very little chance of a vote taking place in Congress on the issue before the 2012 elections.

Such populist conservative movements which have emerged over the past in American political history have had difficulty in sustaining their drive over more than two electoral cycles if they did not become a fundamental part of a coalition in Congress or a coalition of voters for the presidential elections. As of this date the Tea Party movement has neither and tends to look more like the tax revolts of the 1950s, the John Birch Society efforts of the 1960s, or again the Ross Perot supporters of 1992. Just like the Christian Fundamentalists in the 1980s and 1990s, they are both a captive segment of the Republican electorate (which means that their only real choice on election day is to vote or to stay at home) and they have been largely instrumentalized by Republican elites with whom they share common goals and ideals but from whom they also largely differ on other issues, notably the calendar and feasibility of desired reforms. On two questions such as Medicare reform and immigration, the potential exists to operate that break between the grassroots, the boots on the ground, and the elites, those who profit from channeling the anger, within the movement.

In conclusion, it is difficult to envisage a central role for the Tea Party movement in the long term of American politics. It is more likely that the mark they leave on American politics has to do with modes of organization and mobilization of the conservative movement, as a response to the new form of campaign and voter outreach the Obama organization put into place, than on transformational policies. The Tea Party movement should then be regarded as a new medium with an old message.


  1. See Poll Finds Tea Party Backers Wealthier and More Educated, in «The New York Times», April 14, 2010 and  Williamson V., Skocpol T., Coggin J., The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, in «Perspectives on Politics», vol. 9, no. 1, March 2011, pp. 25–43.
  2. Out of the 6 seats the Republicans eventually gained, 3 were gained (out of 6) in a state where the incumbent Democrat had retired, and 3 (out of 13) in a state where the incumbent was running, confirming that it is much easier to win an empty seat.
  3. Williamson V., Skocpol T., Coggin J., The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, cit.