A Brief the History of the Tea Party

As the Tea Party made its boisterous debut on the national stage in 2009, it energized conservatives, rattled liberals, and confounded reporters in ways rivaled by very few other contemporary movements. In 2009 and 2010, Republican candidates rode a Tea Party wave of anti-Obama sentiment to victory, most significantly in deep blue states.

Early reports regarding the movement, its motivations, and its voters characterized the Tea Party as comprised of energized, disgruntled conservatives railing against the new president’s spending package and bailout bills. But not too long after this sentiment took hold, many in the press pivoted, and began to argue that the Tea Party’s efforts were as much a reaction to George Bush’s second term as they were to Barack Obama’s first.

Tea Party rally in Searchlight, Nevada (credit: Wikimedia)

Even as that new conventional wisdom gained widespread acceptance, another shift in perspective was on the horizon. As the Tea Party movement essentially mainstreamed leading up to and during the 2012 presidential primary, fueled the fires of the Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, and Santorum presidential campaigns, the press became less concerned with defining the movement in its entirety and began covering the elected officials propelled into office or supported by the new coalition. Those with relatively long political memories will recall that not so long ago, Marco Rubio found electoral success as a frontrunner-primarying Tea Party outsider, and Mitt Romney’s vice presidential selection of Paul Ryan was at the time widely considered to be an olive branch from the GOP establishment to more hard-nosed conservative Tea Party-types.

Despite their inability to pin down the movement’s ideological makeup, the press did eventually settle on a single sentiment about the Tea Party movement, a conventional, underlying truth; there grew a near-unanimous consensus that the movement’s rise and electoral success signified a dawning ‘libertarian moment’ in American politics. Despite the amorphous nature of both the movement and the press’ stabs at defining it, many members of the press were confident that this was surely the case.

The press began pushing this particular narrative with some real muscle around 2012. Ron Paul was taking his second, somewhat more successful presidential lap around the country, and his son had been elected to the U.S. Senate only one election cycle prior; the Paul brand of state-rights flavored conservatism was enjoying some time in the national spotlight.

Former US Congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul, a self-described libertarian, is one of the most popular contemporary libertarians (credit: Wikimedia)

The echo only grew louder as social conservatives were dealt a narrow loss by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Obergefell case—a loss that the many in the press mistakenly and naively took as signaling the end of the culture wars. With seemingly no cultural battles left to fight, the narrative took hold that the conservative movement would pivot to encompass tenants of the libertarian movement, while also rejecting the seemingly bigger-government “compassionate conservatism” of the Bush years—and the Tea Party was sure to play a prominent role in injecting this new libertarian streak directly into the heart of conservative politics.

Today’s Tea Party and the ‘Libertarian Moment’

The press has gotten plenty about the Tea Party wrong, and a number of reporters have owned up to that fact. But it is this ‘libertarian moment’ concept in which many reporters have had the most confidence, to which they have been the most consistently committed, and whereby they have been most incorrect. Their it’s-just-over-the-horizon forecasting of an American libertarian moment brought on by Tea Party politics may be one of the most botched political stories of the new century; while traditional social conservatism did indeed endure a loss at the hands of the Supreme Court via the Obergefell decision, it quickly passed the mantle to a resurgent, culturally conservative populism, skipping right over ideological libertarianism. Members of the Tea Party may not have envisioned or anticipated this evolutionary hand-off during the early days of the movement, but, especially as of late, they have served as a strong driving force for it.

Conservative voters’ behavior during the 2016 primary provides the best, most relevant insights to how the Tea Party movement has evolved, and to how the press blew the story so badly. During the primary, conservative Tea Party voters broke into two camps: Trump supporters and Trump-resistant, self-identified “conservatarians.”

First, the conservatarians. Both early on and throughout the primary campaign, scores of ideological conservative voters were averse to Donald Trump’s celebrity, seemingly enigmatic ideology, and–probably most of all–his disregard for, or misunderstanding of, certain traditionally conservative principles; this is true even if they still admired his bombast, donor-class-bashing and anti-establishment message. These voters found themselves scattered amongst a plethora of other ‘outsider’ candidates and quickly became too fractured among a buffet of potential conservative alternatives to unite against the New York billionaire.

This “conservatarian” camp is certainly the more ideologically libertarian of the two 2016 Tea Party sub-camps–and clearly, they don’t mind being viewed as somewhat libertarian, given the portmanteau moniker many of them embrace. But in reality, it’s hard to distinguish what distinctly, ideologically libertarian policy ideas this bloc of voters actively champions. It’s true that they don’t, for the most part, get hung up on socially conservative sticking points like gay marriage and legal marijuana; many conservatarians don’t make socially conservative moral arguments against the Obergefell decision or similar policy outcomes from Washington, but rather, point to those federal actions as examples of the federal government over-exerting its authority and violating the 10th Amendment. The argument conservatarians make against socially liberal policy outcomes is less morality-based and more constitutionally-technical than the arguments made by their socially conservative forefathers, but their preferred policy outcomes are, essentially, the same. Given the many socially liberal policy outcomes ideological libertarianism enables or directly champions, it’s possible that these voters may be better understood as “10th Amendment Conservatives,” rather than “conservatatians.”

The Trump supporters—the second, and ultimately victorious, sub-camp of 2016 Tea Party voters—were willing to overlook or embrace Trump’s ideological inconsistencies and imperfections, galvanizing the insurgent mogul’s campaign early on in the primary and blessing him with the holy momentum that most other campaigns spent the 2016 primary only chasing. Trump quickly secured roughly a third of the Republican primary vote, and smashed his way through New Hampshire and South Carolina, putting him on a relatively easy path to the nomination. It’s been called a “hostile takeover,” a “great Republican revolt.” This is language lifted directly from the Tea Party’s rebellious lexicon.

While these two blocks of Tea Party voters backed different candidates, the issues that motivated them and their policy references really aren’t all that different. They think the Supreme Court and the federal government frequently overreach and unconstitutionally expand their power. They think strict immigration policies ought to be enforced; they want the wall built, immigration limited, and illegal immigrants deported. Identifying their leanings on foreign policy is a bit trickier, though it seems that most of them favor a less-interventionist approach to overseas affairs.

When these policy preferences are contrasted with traditional, ideological libertarianism—major strands of which champion nearly unrestricted immigration and government intervention so minimal that social liberalism is, essentially, a guaranteed outcome or at least a permissible, unavoidable conclusion—it becomes hard to avoid the conclusion that the Tea Party isn’t comprised of tomorrow’s libertarians so much as it’s comprised of today’s culturally conservative populists, unifying in a coalition that’s defined more by an anti-liberal and an anti-establishment attitude than libertarian political philosophy or ideology. The conservatarian camp may not be raging directly against cultural issues, like their socially conservative forefathers had, but their championing of the 10th Amendment in response to America’s recent socially leftward jolt is firmly in the constitutionally conservative tradition; yes, it’s a reflection of small government values, but those values are more clearly rooted in traditional conservatism than tomorrow’s libertarianism. Meanwhile, the Trump supporters are raging for the sake of raging—their burn-it-down attitude naturally puts ideological purity and cohesion on the backburner in favor of prioritizing smashing the establishment and disrupting the status quo.

To some conservative thought leaders, it isn’t news that the Tea Party and conservative movement isn’t trending libertarian. “Nationalism and populism have overtaken conservatism in terms of appeal,” Rush Limbaugh announced on his radio show in early 2016. “...It’s not conservatism that’s uniting [voters] or motivating them…[it’s] an absolutely direct opposition to the left, to the Democratic Party, to Obama and everything that’s been going on the last seven years...and they will go anywhere if they are convinced whoever’s telling them they’re gonna stop it is telling the truth.”

All of this is not to say that a truly pure libertarian moment will never be nascent in America politics; as Millennials age and come to dominate American politics, they may grow more fiscally conservative while holding onto their almost universally socially liberal attitudes. That evolution would most likely owe more to the public opinion swings and Supreme Court decisions of the Obama era–as well as the era’s economic shortcomings–­than it will to the populism of the Tea Party movement. Voters also typically become more fiscally conservative as they age, but Millennial’s tentative ability to remain socially liberal will reflect the fact they were raised in an era when previous taboos like gay rights and legal marijuana became mainstream ideas. And for whatever it’s worth, the Libertarian Party itself might make a splash in the 2016 general election, but that would represent a kneejerk reaction to today’s politics, rather than a natural outgrowth from it.

The Tea Party, its motivations, and its sub-camps remain opaque to the press and other political observers—an ironic fact, given how easily many within the movement identify with its motives and how enthusiastically they champion them. But before America gets to the prospective point where ideological libertarianism fully mainstreams in the Tea Party or any other conservative outgrowth, we are tasked with facing the reality of today’s political moment. It’s a populist moment, and in ways, a nationalist moment. But it is not, and shows no signs of being, a libertarian moment.