What is the Tea Party? Future historians, current political scientists, and interested average citizens all must ask this question. Given its nebulous nature yet powerful influence over this important election cycle, it is worth spending some time understanding this phenomena: its origin, its composition, goals, impact, and future roll in our political society.
The simple fact of the matter is that while Republicans proclaimed to love small government, it expanded at an enormous rate during the Bush Administration. While the Democrats pushed for a great deal of spending during this time, Republicans had the opportunity to block additional spending but failed to do so; they often made matters worse, in particular with exploding pork barrel projects. In 2006 and in particular during 2008, conservative and independent voters finally had enough of the hypocrisy of Republican members of government. An unfortunate side effect of the two party system and the imprecision of the electoral mechanism is that the party pushing for even greater government spending came to power, believing they had a mandate to radically transform America into an increasingly socialistic state.
In 2009, a perfect storm hit America's political scene. The economy was in flames, largely due to a housing market bubble artificially expanded by government intervention requiring or facilitating mortgages being issued to low (or sometimes no) income buyers. Our government has proven itself completely incapable of dealing with this problem; in fact, its own fiscal situation has dramatically deteriorated over the last couple of years. While the economy burned, fiscal conservatives, fed up with both parties but particularly egged on by the new administration's openly statist attitude, became even more agitated without a party channel to vent through. The government's feeble attempts to improve the economy (largely wrecked by government policies) with yet more corrupt government spending has proven so ridiculously absurd that a very large segment of Americans have written off the government as an effective tool for positive change.
In February, following a "stimulus" of unimaginable cost with almost no public scrutiny being passed along party lines, Rick Santelli delivered a now famous rant on CNBC. It should be watched. In it, he calls for a "tea party" to be held in Chicago, referring back to the famous Boston Tea Party of 1773, where colonists protested unfair tax laws by seizing British cargo ships and dumping the tea into Boston Harbor. I do not know if Santelli was aware of the tea party held in Binghamton, NY that January to protest a tax on soda; being an upstate New Yorker, I would certainly feel some pride in thinking this movement was born in my backyard.
After Santelli's rant, tea parties began springing up across the nation. By Tax Day (April 15th), a massive, nation wide protest was conducted, organized via the Internet largely by local people fed up with the current system. Rallies continued to be held throughout the summer, culminating in a very large rally in Washington, D.C. on September 12th. Since then, tea parties have been held often throughout the nation, sometimes organized by local leaders and sometimes put together by national leaders who have the respect of the tea partiers.
The Tea Party has a single, unifying goal: the government has become too large, too powerful, and abusive. While social conservatives certainly join the Tea Party, the Tea Party itself is not a social movement outside of the economic role of government. Tea Partiers tend to know the Constitution is our agreement as to what the government may and may not do and that many actions our government has taken recently overstep those limitations. Austrian economists like F. A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises tend to be popular reading, in particular Hayek's The Road to Serfdom.
Their argument is simple and extremely difficult to refute: politicians are not responsible with taxpayer dollars, in particular when the government becomes so bloated that it becomes impossible to hold those politicians accountable for money that disappears into the bureaucratic abyss. Government does not know how to improve our lives better than we do ourselves; politicians also have motives outside of our conception of good, whereas we do not. We have never consented to be ruled like children, but rather demand we be governed like citizens.
Government failures will always be defended by a cry for more money; if only more money were spent, the government could achieve great things! The Tea Party rejects this argument. Governments should not be trying to redistribute wealth (a god awful opportunity for corruption) or trying to create a better society (since when do politicians understand all of society, what a better one would look like, have a clear plan to achieve it, and the virtue to see it through?).
Simply put, Tea Partiers wish to live their lives unmolested by the government.
The Tea Party confuses many politicos because it is not a traditional mechanism for political participation. Our rules and political norms largely rule out the possibility of a successful third party. Any third party would largely take away votes from either the Democrats or the Republicans, handing the party least impacted a victory over what would essentially be a divided party. Bull Moose, the Green Party, Ross Perot; each and every time, the major third party always helps the party farthest from them on the political spectrum win the election.
With very few exceptions, the Tea Party is not a political party but rather a political movement. It has provided Independents who demand fiscal conservatism an outlet to vent their rage outside of the Republican Party, a party that has spent the last decade destroying its own image as fiscally responsible. Tea Partiers owe no dues and largely have no leaders. It is a decentralized rejection of the statist status quo.
Rather than divide the Republican Party, the Tea Party has conducted an insurgency campaign within the mechanism of the party. Republicans with reputations for fiscal irresponsibility have faced strong primary challenges; many established Republicans have since lost their positions not to Democrats but to largely unknown individuals.
Perhaps most importantly, the Tea Party has brought in millions of individuals who have never really taken an active roll in politics and radically changed the social mores of our country. This is one of the few times in our nation's history that a liberal government has faced massive, vocal opposition to their domestic policies. The silent majority is silent no longer. Statist philosophy is no longer allowed to go unchallenged in the court of public opinion. Before, the few people who would speak up against the state were largely dismissed as extremists; now, statists have to prove their goals are not only possible but desirable to an audience no longer inclined to blindly accept the precept that "the state can fix all."
The future of the Tea Party largely depends on how well Washington implements reforms toward a smaller, Constitutionally bound government. This is unlikely, to put it mildly. It is likely that future government projects will have to overcome strong political resistance from Tea Party politicians (generally in the Republican Party) and political revulsion in popular opinion. The stigma of TARP, the Stimulus, Cash for Clunkers, and ObamaCare will not be forgotten quickly, and politicians who assume new spending can be authorized without a serious explanation for the necessity of that spending will pay for it at the polls.
With the probable exception of ObamaCare, however, most current government spending will not be rolled back. Too many have paid too much into Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid to get nothing in return, and even Tea Partiers will not wish to end up losing everything in these Ponzi schemes. These systems will continue towards bankruptcy in the near future, eventually screwing over everyone still alive at that point in time.
The protests and rallies may die down as new spending decreases, but the fiscal instability of our system will continue to plague our nation for many decades to come. Any government, regardless of which party controls it, will reignite this flame if they propose yet more government programs. The notion that government is the problem, not the solution, has always been a strong aspect of the American political ethos. We have entered an era where this ethos has found a voice, a resounding, booming voice that has caused every politician that desires reelection more than progressive policies to fear for their political life. It is appropriate that the Tea Party has adopted the Gadsden flag as its own: politicians fear treading on the liberty of the people like they have not in many generations. The silent majority has found its voice and it will not lose it again in the near future.