What is the Tea Party Movement?

Shift in Tea Party Ideology and Frames 2007-2016


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 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.At first much of the energy for organizing the grassroots portion of the movement came from libertarians and supporters of Ron Paul. Over time, participants in the pre-existing Christian Right and Patriot Movements emerged as playing an increasingly significant role in local units and chapters of the Tea Party Movement. They brought into the tea party racial antipathies towards people of color, and opposition to gay rights and reproductive rights. They also brought in a broader range of conspiracy theories than those promulgated by Ron Paul supporters.

 The Christian Right involvement in the Tea Party campaign to gain political power is related to therole of Dominionism, a broad theological tendency that began growing in the 1970s (Barron,1992; Diamond, 1989,1998; Clarkson, 1997; Goldberg, 2006). According to Diamond, ‘the concept that Christians are Biblically mandated to “occupy” all secular institutions has become the central unifying ideology for the Christian Right’ (1989: 138, italics in the original).
When Tea Party activists hold government spending hostage they see themselves as patriots protecting America from financial ruin at the hands of tax-and-spend liberals. Congressional Town Halls ring with polemics charging that President Barack Obama is greasing a slippery slope of big government collectivism that will slurry the nation into an immoral cesspit of totalitarian tyranny.

Signs appear at rallies comparing Obama to both Hitler and Stalin.Within several subcultures of the political right in the United States, such claims are common sense and received wisdom from a long line of authors whose books sit on the shelves of conservatives, economic libertarians, and right-wing Christian evangelicals. These tomes warned of the dangers of collectivists, banksters, the Federal Reserve, and organized labor  bosses. At meetings the debate over dinner centers on who is really behind this awful conspiracy to destroy our nation. Is it the Bilderberg banking group, the Trilateral Commission, the Rockefeller family, the Freemasons and their Illuminati handlers, or the Jews? Since the terror attacks on 9/11/2001 Muslims have been incorporated into some right-wing conspiracy narratives. For some Christians who embrace conspiracism, the devil is in the details, working behind the scenes like a fire-breathing chimera.

Tea Parties & Conspiratorialism

Many of the negative claims about Obama flowing out of the Tea Parties are based on conspiracy theories about subversion and betrayal by political liberals. (Berlet, 2010). Some of these conspiracy theories are recycled from the militia and Patriot movements of the 1990s. Others were originally aimed at George W. Bush from the right, including claims of eroding sovereignty made by right-wing ideologues including Jerome Corsi, Phyllis Schlafly, and Pat Buchanan. For a time, these conspiracy theories were repeated and amplified by Lou Dobbs on CNN before he was terminated (Berlet, 2009). Fox News helps encourage the growth of the Tea Parties whileheaping abuse on critics of the movement.
When Glenn Beck was on Fox News, his program frequently sported conspiracy theories that previously had been circulated by the conspiracist John Birch Society (Zaitchik, 2010). Socialism and National Socialism (Nazism) are portrayed by the Tea Partiers and Town Hallcriers as two sides of the same collectivist and totalitarian coin.
This is the argument found in the best-selling book by Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning (2007). According to Goldberg, Today we still live under the fundamentally fascistic economic system established by Wilson and FDR. We do live in an ‘unconscious civilization’ of fascism, albeit of a friendly sort infinitely more benign than that of Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, or FDR’s America (2007: 330). This idea traces back to Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, (1944).
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This was originally submitted as a conference abstract with the title:
Bad “Banksters” or Capitalism’s Punch Line

It became a paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association
Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas, NV, 2011-08-12A revised version appeared in Critical Sociology as: “Collectivists, communists, organized labor bosses, banksters, and subversion:The Tea Parties as a countersubversion panic”

Tea Party Nationalism study by Burghart & Zeskind for NAACP

Significant Recent Critical Essays

Chip Berlet’s Series on the Tea Bag Movement & Right-Wing Populism

Video & Audio Resources

More Details About the Tea Parties