Religion & Liberty Online

There is Still No Tea Party Movement

GOTW.102913.Libertarian-320x414There was something wrong with Zhang’s dog. The Chinese man had bought the Pomeranian on a business trip, but after he brought it home he found the animal to be wild and difficult to train. The dog would bite his master, make strange noises, and had a tail that mysteriously continued to grow. And the smell. Even after giving the mutt a daily bath Zhang couldn’t bear the strong stink.

When he could take it no longer, Zhang sought help from his local zoo in Tunkou. They informed him that the dog was not a dog at all — it was an Arctic fox, a protected rare species.

The Tea Party movement is like Zhang’s dog. For the four years, pundits and politicians have been trying to identify this political animal. Almost everyone thinks they have political movement on their hands, but as many folks recognized years ago the Tea Party “movement” is not really a movement at all. It’s a new title for something old the Republicans have ignored for a long time. A number of astute observers recognized that fact soon after the “Tea Party” movement was born.

“Having looked at the swelling of the Tea Party,” Paul Gottfried wrote in The American Conservative in 2010, “I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not a uniform movement. There are at least three different movements trying to give the impression of being one.” And as Matthew Continetti of The Weekly Standard said that same year:

There is no single Tea Party. The name is an umbrella that encompasses many different groups. Under this umbrella, you’ll find everyone from the woolly fringe to Ron Paul supporters, from Americans for Prosperity to religious conservatives, independents, and citizens who never have been active in politics before. The umbrella is gigantic.

Indeed, the main faction of the Tea Party is — and always has been — a subset of the Religious Right. In 2010, a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that nearly half (47 percent) consider themselves to be part of the conservative Christian movement. And despite the perception of the movement being comprised of economically-oriented libertarians, the majority held social conservative views. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of Tea Partiers said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, and only eighteen percent supported same-sex marriage.

Fast forward to 2013. Another survey by PRRI finds that about one-quarter (26 percent) of Americans who identify with the Tea Party movement are libertarians. Twice as many Americans who identify with the Tea Party (52 percent) say they are a part of the religious right or conservative Christian movement. In contrast, only 22 percent of libertarians identify as part of the Christian right movement and more than 6-in-10 (61 percent) libertarians say they do not consider themselves part of the Tea Party movement.

However, despite being dominated by religious people, the Tea Party organizations don’t focus on social conservative issues. There is, in fact, little agreement on which issues are significant. When the Washington Post contacted 647 Tea Party groups in 2010 the newspaper found that less than half of the organizations considered spending and limiting the size of government to be a primary concern.

So if the Tea Party is not a movement, what is it? Mostly a marketing tactic, and an attempt at rebranding. The term Tea Party is mainly a label for very conservative Republicans and conservative independents who always vote for the GOP, even when they shun the Republican label. It’s a way to set themselves apart from those they deem insufficiently conservative, like RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) and ruling class elites.

During the presidency of George W. Bush the conservative brand became meaningless. Even the so-called conservative media used the label, completely unironically, to refer to politicians who supported increases in government spending (Bush), amnesty for illegal aliens (John McCain), government-sponsored universal health care (Mitt Romney), and abortion and gay marriage (Rudy Giuliani). When “conservatives” could embrace the core of the liberal agenda, what did the term mean?

The original Tea Party events in 2009 provided a way frustrated conservatives could answer that question, however vaguely, by declaring we are this and not that.

Eventually, the GOP establishment realized that tapping into the Tea Party’s energy would help them take back Congress, by doing what they wanted to do anyway (address fiscal issues while ignoring social concerns). The result is that they began to treat the Tea Party as if it were merely another special interest to be pacified, rather than the the same group of disgruntled conservatives who have reluctantly caucused with the GOP for decades.

The last best hope for the Tea Party is that those who identify with it will recognize that they are part of a rebranding of the conservative label and not developing a distinct movement within conservatism. This is particularly true for conservative Christians, who recognize that social and economic issues are intertwined and inseparable. The media, the GOP, and most of the rest of America has no idea what the Tea Party really is all about. It’s time they find out they have a fox and not a dog.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).