On entering the White House, President Obama promised to turn the US economy around with fiscal stimulus and job creation, alongside a progressive action plan for welfare reform. Most of the US, it seemed, was disillusioned with the Bush ‘tax cuts for the rich’ strategy for economic growth. Just two years later the Democrats face a powerful surge of conservative activism aiming to undermine those plans – and the government itself. Under the umbrella of the Tea Party movement, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans have taken to the streets, galvanised for action.
The first Tea Party protests took place across the US on 27 February 2009, with an on-air rant by CNBC commentator Rick Santelli eight days previously credited as a watershed moment. Discontent had been brewing for some time among the conservative middle class, who felt their too-high taxes were paying for the failings of others. A mood of suspicion towards the establishment prevailed.
The spring and summer of that year saw a wave of further protests. Activists united over demands for lower taxes and smaller government, based on a conservative reading of the US constitution. Obama’s Wall Street bailout and healthcare reform came under particular attack. To the Tea Partiers, Obama’s administration and the liberals are ‘the enemy’, bringing unacceptable ‘socialism’ into US politics.
The groups were organised locally and loosely affiliated on the internet. Soon two main lobbyist groups, FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, stepped in to provide the movement with financial backing, education and training.
So is this really an example of a spontaneous, grass-roots uprising? Or is it, as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi put it, ‘astroturf [engineered] by some of the wealthiest people in America to keep the focus on tax cuts for the rich instead of for the great middle class’?
The answer is probably somewhere in the middle.
On the one hand, the movement undoubtedly thrives on the energy of its activists. ‘The Tea Party’s approach is similar to the early feminist and civil rights movements – amateur, nubile, and thus somehow more “real”,’ says Tim Stanley, a professor of contemporary US history at Royal Holloway University who has been researching the movement. But it is also rooted firmly in the 21st century: ‘It’s a new type of instant, plugged-in, mobile campaigning.’ It has been reported that the literature of the left, such as Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, is being studied by Tea Party activists determined to beat the progressives at their own game.
On the other hand, the movement has changed significantly in character since its inception. High-profile supporters have given the Tea Party both celebrity endorsement and Washington expertise. Along with ex-Republican politicians such as FreedomWorks chairman Dick Armey, media personalities such as Fox News host Glenn Beck have celebrated the movement and agitated its members. Sarah Palin has risen above the ridicule she inspired among the liberal establishment during her run for vice-presidency to become darling of the Tea Party – and with it, a renewed political force.
More controversial is the question of the movement’s wealthy financial backers. Cash injections for FreedomWorks have included, among others, $2.96 million from the Sarah Mellon Scaife Foundation, directed by the billionaire Richard Scaife. The Koch brothers, multi-billionaire owners of gas and oil conglomerate Koch Industries, have also spent millions through their organisation Americans for Prosperity. An investigative report by Jane Mayer for the New Yorker concluded that through Tea Party involvement, the Kochs have ‘helped turn their private agenda into a mass movement’.
The movement has also lost some independence through its gradual integration into the Republican machine. During the 2010 election cycle, Republicans learned the value of Tea Party support when more moderate Republican favourites lost out to candidates with Tea Party backing. But it remains to be seen how far this uneasy partnership can go. As Tim Stanley puts it, ‘The GOP [Grand Old Party] is still dominated at an organisational and money level by Martini-sipping, pro-business frat boys who can’t stand the proletarian nature of the Tea Party.’
Regardless of these tensions, the movement embodies a potent political mix. And despite this talk of oil billionaires and hyperactive talk show hosts, the Tea Party should not be understood as a uniquely American phenomenon. FreedomWorks has shown transnational aspirations in holding talks with British conservative campaign group the Taxpayers Alliance, and is reportedly urging right-wing European think-tanks to start activist wings.
It may be time for progressives on both sides of the Atlantic to dig out their dusty old copies of Rules for Radicals.