A Brief History
The Tea Party movement in current American politics, taking its name from the protest in Boston before the American War for Independence, has exerted an influence since its beginning out of all proportion to what entrenched interests expected. Tracing the roots would be complicated, but as could be guessed from the name, the movement is driven primarily by dissatisfaction with enormous and wasteful government spending which members feel does not represent their needs or desires. Dissatisfaction with the cost and invasiveness of establishment Republican programs, and the radicalism of Democratic ones, brought together a movement which, catching a popular mood, resulted in 2010 in heavy electoral victories for the Republican party, stiffening the party spine to stump for more responsible policy. (Though as the 2013 budget showdown proved conclusively, the media in general has no use for this position and “hard-line” Republicans will still cave to the resulting bad press, having few allies outside their popular base.)
To quickly review some of the grievances of the Tea Partiers: in the presidency of George W. Bush, notably the PATRIOT Act, NCLB, and the TARP and other bailout programs; popular unease with the length and apparent inconclusiveness of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and finally utter dislike for the contents and methods used during President Obama’s term by a Democrat-dominated Congress to ram through the ACA and the education legislation mostly referred to (though a bit inaccurately) as Common Core from the standards it champions and subsidizes. In this sense, the Tea Party can be seen as a reactionary movement against liberal idealism carried out further Left and far more rapidly than the citizenry desired. President Obama’s apparent unwillingness to address problems under his administration head-on and – ah, as he would say – transparently is a continuing irritation; even when various difficulties and scandals have been dealt with, the methods have left many – inclined to be suspicious anyway – feeling that something was swept under a rug.
Most Tea Party adherents would say they stand for the following: fiscal responsibility, Federal government limited strictly by the Constitution, and the preservation of American identity. That last is of course difficult to define, and many might want me to explain exactly what I meant by it. Some more libertarian-minded might say it was entirely wrapped up in the first two items, and that I was being redundant. Many (perhaps most) others see American identity as being a culmination of and wrapped up in the Western intellectual and moral tradition – by which is usually meant an amalgam of classical and scientific learning, and the religion and morality of Christianity. With this foundation, although not a major talking point when left to specifically Tea Party devices, a significant portion of the Tea Party also takes socially conservative positions. This does not describe a coherent plan of action: on any given issue there are different plans to enact or not enact various wildly differing laws or accommodations; the variety defies description.
Some general tendencies, politically: Tea Partiers are generally upset with the state of public education, but do not favor any of the recent laws or proposals based in Federal oversight, many having been won over by the “new classical” model (my own phrase for various reasons which are not the subject of this post) or simply wishing for the glory days of public education in the earlier 20th century. As a result, they often champion the charter school programs which seem to be producing much better than average results. The Tea Party favors free enterprise, but views the current state of affairs as corrupt – Republicans and Democrats both, but most Tea Party members will believe the Democrats are worse offenders, and Republican politicians could be held to their principles by public pressure. Tea Party activists take probably wide range of approaches to immigration issues, but tend to see the current state of the laws as bad and on the whole too lenient – not to mention the lack of enforcement. The Tea Party tends to strongly favor protection of religious and private institutions from state interference, and usually champions private gun ownership, both mainly on Constitutional grounds with a side of habit.
On more purely social issues: They tend to be deeply distrustful of if not completely hostile to the various attempts to the spread of various sex-to-gender transitions in public language and to the redefinition of traditional sexual expectations by law and especially find judicial interference objectionable. On the whole, the Tea Party tends to be mainly pro-life, for traditional and moral reasons: the majority consider this position scientifically obvious as well.
How This Results in Misunderstanding
The Tea Party suffers from two major drawbacks. The first is that various welfare state programs are so entrenched that even some ideologically committed members have no idea what the demanded cuts would actually look like; thus stories trumped up as “hypocrisy” where someone will show up at a Tea Party rally with a sign saying “Save Medicare”. Between this and the fact that – except for a few outspoken libertarians – the established political and media class largely have no interest in or sympathy for reducing the size of government, the main point of the Tea Party tends to get lost in the media coverage. (This is pretty inexcusable, as even Wikipedia gets it right.)
With fiscal responsibility dismissed from the critics’ minds, the second problem – in terms of positive public media image – is that the Tea Party is probably more conservative than the country on average – possibly than the Republican Party on average. I outlined those social views above; but the “march of progress” has dictated to many minds that the newer ideas and morals (if the word is even appropriate to use for the new incoherence) are naturally better. The result is that to the average liberal politician or politically active citizen the Tea Party serves as a useful stand-in for social conservatism, even though that is, I will say it once again, not the main point of the movement. And those conservative views are not something to bargain or compromise with, or a viable political position; social conservatives are reactionaries who need to be placated, and if not placated ignored or dealt with. Perhaps no better illustration of this attitude can be offered than the President’s describing such people as “clinging to their guns and religion”, and his evident dissatisfaction with those who disagree with his goals and methods.
The Tea Party is misunderstood because their political opponents have no interest in understanding them. To me, this seems an inadvisable way to run a country in the long term – especially when the major platform of the movement is responsible government – and, if history is any indicator, seems an attitude likely to lead to political whiplash as various groups of extremists with different goals gain power. One immediate result is that Republicans, with a fight demanded by the base, and an insufficient political base in Congress to force compromise, have steadily beaten down many of the Democrats’ more public – or more liberal – proposals. Unfortunately, this has in many cases strengthened the perception that they are trouble-making reactionaries. It might objectively be found a bit odd that the Democratic Senate is not as regularly taken to task for responding similarly to proposals from the House – as in the budget fight – but the facts of the case and the balance of power do not seem to be major criteria for most people when making ideologically-based judgments.