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Overview of the Tea Party Movement

Since the Tea Party movements is made up of different sectors of the political right, they come into their activism from different places and different agendas. We need to figure out the story of the people being interviewed.

The Tea Party Movement is a Right-Wing Populist movement. It is mobilizing based on three concurrent trends in American society.

  • Class: Economic fears reflecting the harsh realty of downsizing, job loss, and mortgage foreclosures while financial institutions that propelled the recession hand out bonuses. While much of the anger is legitimate, it is inflamed and pointed toward scapegoats by histrionic claims and convoluted conspiracy theories about betrayal by liberal elites, socialists, and Democrats.
  • Race: A backlash among many White people worried about shifts in racial demographics; the changing face of immigration (especially Mexicans, Africans, Muslims, and Arabs); and the election of Barack Obama as President.
  • Gender: Anxiety exacerbated by portraying abortion and gay rights as threatening traditional hierarchical family structures interpreted as an integral element in preserving the “American way of life.”

Tea Parties and Town Halls

Before the Tea Party movement emerged, libertarian gadfly Ron Paul ran a Presidential campaign based on tax protest themes, including an event held in Boston December 16, 2007 “timed to coincide with the 234th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party.” That event raised over $5 million in one 24-hour period, and “smashed the one-day fund-raising record for a Republican presidential candidate. This “surpassed “the record $4.2 million they raised on Nov. 5.,” an event “timed to coincide with Guy Fawkes Day, which commemorates a British mercenary who tried unsuccessfully to kill King James I on Nov. 5, 1605.”

The U.S. Tea Party Movement began as an elite conservative campaign designed as “astroturfing,” which is a propaganda model that creates the false impression of an actual grassroots movement. The idea, however, gained momentum and swept across the country. The Tea Parties became an actual social movement, and by the autumn of 2009 were beginning to build social movement organizations in most states and negotiate with the Republican Party over policy matters.

Like many newly-created social movements, the Tea Party Movement is still in a process of developing its frames, narratives, and issue boundaries. Ideologically it is still in tension, with an awkward amalgam of ideological positions cobbled together from several preexisting formations on the political right:

  • Economic libertarians who worry about big government meddling with the “Free Market.”
  • Anti-taxation activists.
  • Christian Right Conservatives who oppose liberal government social policies
  • Right-wing apocalyptic Christians who fear a Satanic New World Order
  • Nebulous conspiracy theorists who fear a totalitarian New World Order

In addition, several other sectors began to gravitate towards the Tea Party and Town Hall movements:

  • Second Amendment Gun Rights Activists.
  • Nationalistic ultra-patriots concerned that US sovereignty is eroding.
  • Armed Citizens Militias
  • Xenophobic anti-immigrant White nationalists who worry about preserving the “real” America.
  • Recruiters from the Insurgent White Supremacist Movement

The original idea of pro-corporate Republican strategists was to harness popular anti-tax energy to Free Market policies as a way to block the Obama administration’s proposed economic reforms. The Tea Party quickly picked up this theme and welded it to pre-existing conspiracy theories about government tyranny popular on the political right.

Town Hall Protests began in early August of 2009. They were built around confronting elected representatives who supported the Obama administration’s plans for healthcare reform. Conspiracy claims were common at the Town Hall confrontations. Two key themes emerged: Obama was a socialist whose policies would usher in fascistic totalitarian rule; and federal healthcare would lead to unplugging grandma and other forms of ruthless cost-effective euthanasia seen as paralleling the policies of Nazi Germany. Both claims emerged as hyperbolic conspiracy theories, but were originally rooted in longstanding arguments favored by the political right.

While it was activist cadre from the neo-fascist Lyndon LaRouche network (based in the U.S. and Germany) who first carried the large graphic images of President Obama morphed with a Hitler cowlick and mustache, the theme became a meme.

When the Town Hall and Tea Party activists warn that Obama’s big government policies will lead to totalitarian rule so that Obama is like both Hitler and Stalin, they’re likely drawing from the writings of free-market economic libertarian Friedrich August von Hayek or those theories as transmogrified by the conspiracist John Birch Society.

When right-wing populists warn that Obama’s health care plan will pull the plug on grandma, they’re likely drawing from the anti-abortion and anti-euthanasia writings of conservative Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer or those theories as refracted through the lens of apocalyptic Christian conspiracy theorists such as Tim LaHaye and Pat Robertson.

Another way to look at it is how Tea Party Populists compare to other major sectors of the political right in the United States.





Gun Owners

Armed Stance



Many Mild
Some Vivid

Many Mild
Some Vivid


Some Defensive
Few Revolutionary



Some Mild
Many Vivid

Some Mild
Many Vivid


Many Defensive
Some Revolutionary

Ultra Right


Most Vivid

Most Vivid


Few Defensive
Most Revolutionary







What about aggression or violence? There have been a few incidents, but it is not typical. See this chart on potentials for violence.

More Background:

Key Articles

Taking Tea Partiers Seriously by Chip Berlet, The Progressive
Chip Berlet’s series on the Tea Parties, The Public Eye
Dismiss the Tea Parties at Your Peril, by Adele Stan, AlterNet
The Tea Party Is Dangerous: Dispelling Seven Myths, by Adele Stan, AlterNet
Tea Party Lights Fuse for Rebellion on Right, David Barstow, The New York Times

June 2010 Gallup Poll – Tea Party supporters overlap Republican base
May 2010 University of Washington Survey – racial resentment among Tea Party participants
April 2010 New York Times/CBS Survey – Tea Party participants more white and wealthy than average

See Also:


Michael Levenson, 2007, Ron Paul backers stage Boston Tea Party, raise millions, boston.com (Boston Globe, December 17.

Patrick George, 2009, Lloyd Doggett faces angry crowd at Randalls, statesman.com (Austin Statesman), August 2. T

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