Five years ago this week, CNBC commentator Rick Santelli delivered an on-air tirade from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in which he talked about organizing a tea party to protest government bailouts and stimulus spending. What followed was the birth of a nationwide movement that adopted the name Tea Party that has transformed American politics. That anniversary was commemorated this week with a Capitol Hill conference of the Tea Party Patriots—one of a number of groups that seek to represent the views of this movement—at which a number of conservative politicians either sought to channel Santelli’s initial rabble-rousing spirit or to harness it to a more pragmatic campaign to win both houses of Congress and the White House. But those seeking to assess the current strength of the Tea Party idea are wrong to measure it solely in partisan political terms or even the relative influence of any of those who claim to fly the movement’s flag. The most important thing to realize about the Tea Party is that it is a broad set of ideas, not a coherent or distinctly organized movement that takes orders from any one leader or leaders.
What both conservatives and liberals often forget about the Tea Party is that the driving spirit of this movement is not so much Republican as it is one of rebellion against those who defend a Washington status quo that perpetuates a government tax and spending machine. The mainstream media sees the Tea Party as the embodiment of the Washington event at which, like all such conferences, an eclectic gathering of ordinary citizens network with political outliers. But the Tea Party that turned the 2010 midterms into a historic GOP landslide is more than a convention of grass roots activists. It is the expression of frustration with the inability of the political class to reform itself and preserve the vision of limited government promised in the Constitution.
Like all such movements the transition from the stump to the halls of government power has been rough. Effecting change in a democracy is more than a matter of demonstrations or even getting out the vote. It requires persuasion and a commitment to the sort of nose-to-the-grindstone political work that is antithetical to the spirit of rebellion Santelli and those who followed him have sought to harness.
Senator Mike Lee of Utah summed up the challenge for the Tea Party when he said this week, “The way to defeat establishment inertia is not by finding and discarding heretics as much as it is about winning a civil debate. A civil debate, not a civil war.” He’s right about that and those who see only a war between the party establishment and the activists need to remember that the Tea Party has already won the ideological war within the Republican Party.
Though coverage of the Tea Party mostly focuses on the fights between Senator Ted Cruz and some of his GOP colleagues, what is often forgotten is that there is no debate within the party about the principles that the Tea Party movement embodies. All endorse the Tea Party view about the need to fight back against President Obama’s efforts to increase the power of government. Anger against ObamaCare and a government that is too big to fail and too powerful to be held accountable for its out-of-control spending is universal in the GOP. The only differences are about tactics, not the ideas that catapulted the movement into the public square after the stimulus and the Affordable Care Act were past by a Democratic Congress in 2009 and 2010.
The Tea Party has stumbled at times when it allowed the emotions of the debate to overwhelm good sense and dictate destructive tactics like the government shutdown to undermine their cause. It has sometimes pursued party purity over the less exciting business of building governing coalitions. But what its liberal critics forget is that while Ted Cruz and government shutdown advocates are not trusted by most Americans, the same public anger that gave birth to the Tea Party is even greater today than it was five years ago. The challenge for Republicans is to remember that the Tea Party is not just a bunch of activists who go to conventions but, in fact, a broad cross-section of Americans who share their basic beliefs about the role of government. That mass movement of voters took liberal pundits by surprise in 2010 when the Tea Party that they derided as a band of racist cranks turned out in numbers sufficient to oust a Democratic Congress.
The Tea Party is not tied to specific organizations bearing the name but to an idea of reform. To the extent that Republicans continue to embody that concept while also showing themselves worthy of the people’s trust, they will win. That’s why, for all of its ups and downs in recent years, Democrats who prefer to believe the myth that the Tea Party is a top-down concept created by corporate funders may discover they are as wrong about it today as they were when it first started.