'Fiscal Responsibility' Was Always A Red Herring

The recent budget deal should finally settle the question of what the Tea Party was really about.
Bill Clark via Getty Images

In the conclusion to our 2012 article “The Obama Trigger,” Wayne Parent and I made a prediction: “If, as we suggest in this analysis, Tea Party membership is triggered by a single politician rather than by a cohesive set of issues, it will wane after President Obama leaves office.”

At the time, political scientists were trying to assess three key aspects of the tea party movement: How big and how powerful was it? What factors gave rise to it? And how long would it last?

But now that Obama’s tenure is complete, and Trump, who won over 90 percent of white tea party voters, is in office, our view of the movement comes into sharp relief.

In 2010, the tea party claimed 300,000 members dispersed among several loosely affiliated tea party groups, such as Tea Party Patriots, Tea Party Express, Freedom Works and Tea Party Nation. These groups — 1,400 “possible” affiliations were recognized by The Washington Post — remained highly decentralized, making tea party power and influence hard to measure. And that is important for two reasons.

First and foremost, it resulted in the strength of the tea party movement being underestimated. Though formal membership hovered around 10 percent, our data revealed that close to a quarter of the U.S. electorate supported the movement or evaluated it favorably.

Second, the amorphous structure and the lack of an organizing hierarchy made the tea party a stand-in for a host of resentments. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Walter Russell Mead argued that “as the Tea Party label became better known, all kinds of people sought to hitch their wagons to this rising star.” He noted “affluent suburban libertarians, rural fundamentalists, ambitious pundits, unreconstructed racists, and fiscally conservative housewives all can and do claim to be Tea Party supporters.”

They proved to be a powerful coalition. In the 2010 midterm elections, tea party-affiliated candidates won 40 seats in the House and another five in the Senate, and in the spring, after they were sworn into office, nearly 60 percent of all GOP members had joined the new Tea Party Caucus. In ensuing elections, tea party supporters took out establishment Republicans such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Sens. Bob Bennett and Richard Luger, and under the tea party banner, such notable politicians as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Mike Pence rose to power.

A tea party activist waits for Sen. Marco Rubio to deliver a speech during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in 2012.
A tea party activist waits for Sen. Marco Rubio to deliver a speech during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in 2012.
Win McNamee via Getty Images

That success reflected a populist economic wave, tea party leaders insisted, as their activists fixated on the national debt and advocated for deficit reduction and entitlement reform. They were fiscal conservatives who meant business, and they were American patriots of the 18th century variety, or so they claimed.

However, the fact that the tea party misrepresented Colonial and Revolutionary history and failed to articulate clear critiques of tax policies, argued Darrel Enck-Wazner, “belied other motivations.”

Scholars, such as Scott Rasmussen and Douglas Schoen, argued that the tea party served as a contemporary manifestation of public anger and distrust of government, or, as Christopher Parker and Matt Barreto note, that it represented anxiety about the future reminiscent of what Richard Hofstader called the “paranoid style” in American politics over 50 years ago. Still others, such as Steve Fraser and Joshua Freeman, described the tea party as the populist descendent of Barry Goldwater and George Wallace enthusiasts who “express a visceral anger at the cultural and, to some extent, political eclipse of an America in which people who looked and thought like them were dominant.”

Perhaps the most prophetic, now with the benefit of hindsight, were Vanessa Williamson and Theda Skocpol, who pointed to the fear that society was changing dramatically as the tea party catalyst; thus, the tea party mantra, “Take our country back,” reverberates from a sense of cultural defeat.

In short, Barack Obama’s victory triggered the consciousness of that defeat.

Early on, Donald Pease opined that Obama’s election broke the country’s “racial contract,” threatening white privilege and dominance and forcing white Americans to re-evaluate their own place in the pecking order. In many ways, Pease argues, it affects a “part of their practical reality that members of the Tea Party could not incorporate.” To compensate, many tea party supporters indulged the “birther” conspiracy or conjured fantasies of Obama’s allegiance to radical Islam as a way of delegitimizing his presidency.

Yet the primary response ― the one that functioned almost as a third party ― manifested in a patriotic economic movement decrying Obama’s allegedly incessant spending. Why was this experience of profound cultural defeat symbolized by Obama’s victory met with protests over budget deficits and debt ceilings?

Because over 40 years ago, the GOP decided to try to compete among white voters in the South, bending the party ever rightward in order to do so. From Goldwater’s opposition to big government to Nixon’s benign neglect of civil rights enforcement to Reagan’s promotion of colorblindness, all of these positions conserved the status quo by halting government efforts to level the racial playing field. Whether they did so by denying structural racism, or turning a blind eye toward persistent segregation, or by defunding federal social programs under the guise of fiscal responsibility, the ultimate aim was the same.

They succeeded in flipping the South from blue to red, but their Southern Strategy was not without consequences for the country at large. The GOP portrayed federal programs aimed at closing racial gaps as expensive government overreach. In doing so they tapped into and, over time, perpetuated the belief that advantages for racial minorities were disadvantages for white Americans ― the budget as a zero-sum racial game, so to speak. To that end, fixations with the national debt and federal spending have often surfaced in these “Take our country back” moments.

Anti-Obama tea party activists protest tax policy in Washington, D.C.
Anti-Obama tea party activists protest tax policy in Washington, D.C.
Brooks Kraft/Corbis via Getty Images

Undoubtedly, many of those who were drawn to the tea party do not realize the long history of using coded language to launder racial animosity into fiscal conservatism, but that doesn’t matter now. Obama left office, and without him as a foil, the power of the tea party has waned. In 2016, tea party candidates went zero for 10 in their bids to replace GOP establishment candidates such as John McCain.

The anxiety and anger were real, but the economic mission of the tea party was always a red herring for many of its congressional supporters, which is why, late into the night on Feb. 8, nine years to the month since the movement held its first protest rallies, tea partyers ― or former tea partyers ― quietly voted for a government spending bill projected to cause a $1.2 trillion deficit in 2019 alone. Only libertarian Sen. Rand Paul made much noise against it.

If their tea party constituents give them a pass, then the lesson will be that deficits are fine, it just depends on who is in the White House spending the money.

Angie Maxwell, Ph.D., is the director of the Diane Blair Center of Southern Politics and Society at the University of Arkansas and the author of The Indicted South: Public Criticism, Southern Inferiority, and the Politics of Whiteness.

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