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US debt crisis heralds the return of the Tea Party

The US debt crisis is over for now, but legislators have just kicked the can down the road. In this series on the US debt ceiling, academics from Australia, the UK and the US assess the lingering global…

Republican senator Ted Cruz has become the face of the Tea Party movement during the shutdown and debt ceiling crisis. But how has the Tea Party changed since its inception? EPA/Michael Reynolds

The US debt crisis is over for now, but legislators have just kicked the can down the road. In this series on the US debt ceiling, academics from Australia, the UK and the US assess the lingering global implications. Today, David Smith discusses the rise and rise of the Tea Party movement in American politics.


Following the US government shutdown and debt ceiling fiasco, there has been a slew of polls showing the Tea Party is at record levels of unpopularity with the American public.

However, this unpopularity matters little to the Tea Party itself. After they were muted in the 2012 presidential election, the shutdown has given Tea Party activists the chance to reassert their dominance within the Republican Party.

The Tea Party has never been entirely separate from the Republican Party, despite its self-image as a principled force of political outsiders. A study by American political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell found that Tea Party supporters in 2011 were most likely to have been “highly partisan Republicans” in 2006.

Tea Party groups like FreedomWorks and Tea Party Express are distinct from the Republican Party itself, but their main purpose is to get candidates elected as Republicans. They want to take over the Republican Party, not provide an alternative to it. Despite their hostility to “establishment” Republicans, these Republicans embraced the Tea Party and its thousands of dedicated activists. Tea Party support delivered the House to the Republican Party in 2010.

A lot has changed since the Tea Party first appeared in early 2009. It no longer draws tens of thousands of people to its rallies, and many of the prominent political and media figures commonly identified with it prefer to be known simply as “conservatives”.

The 2012 election did lasting damage to the Tea Party label. Mitt Romney’s victory in the Republican primaries showed the limits of Tea Party power, and Tea Partiers had to tone down their criticisms of Romney and the Republican establishment for the sake of defeating Barack Obama. Many Republicans then blamed the Tea Party for losing winnable Senate seats by nominating candidates too extreme to get elected.

But the issues that animate the Tea Party have not gone away. Most importantly, Obama is still president, and his signature healthcare legislation is on its way to becoming entrenched. Like all conservatives, Tea Party supporters believe in fiscal responsibility, limited government, and fidelity to the constitution. What makes them different from other conservatives is their conviction that Obama is out to destroy America, and is on the verge of succeeding.

In their book Change They Can’t Believe In, academics Christopher Parker and Matt Barreto argue that the Tea Party is “reactionary” rather than simply conservative. To them, Obama embodies catastrophic changes to the American way of life, and must be stopped at all costs. This puts them at odds with more traditional conservatives, like Republican speaker John Boehner, who would stop short of defaulting on government debt to stop “Obamacare”.

Tea Partiers believe the Affordable Care Act, despite its conservative origins, is an attempt to impose socialism on America. Harvard political scientists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson have explained that Tea Party supporters are not opposed to all government spending. They support benefits for “deserving” recipients, such as the elderly and military veterans. However, they deeply resent their taxes being used on handouts for “freeloaders”.

Conservatives have long made this distinction between deserving and undeserving beneficiaries, and the distinction has often been implicitly racial. Former president Ronald Reagan was the master of this discourse.

The difference now is that Tea Party supporters see the expansion of government healthcare - along with immigration reform - as part of a scheme to bring millions of new, mainly minority voters into the Democratic coalition. They believe the Democrats want a society in which the “takers” will outnumber the “makers”, and will keep returning them to power.

Now more than ever, the Tea Party believes the Republican Party is too weak, compromised and liberal to stand up to Obama. The day after Congress raised the debt ceiling and re-opened the government, influential conservative commentator Erick Erickson issued a call to arms on his RedState website. Far from being a humiliating defeat, he saw the debt ceiling showdown as an important turning point. According to Erickson, it was worth shutting down the government and taking the country to the brink of default because:

…we always knew the fight would force the charlatans of the GOP out of the shadows into disinfecting sunlight.

Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell may face a primary challenge from the Tea Party over his deal-making with Democrats on the shutdown and debt ceiling. EPA/Shawn Thew

Every Republican legislator who voted to end the shutdown now faces the likelihood of a primary challenge from a Tea Party opponent. This includes Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who brokered the deal with Senate majority leader Harry Reid.

Since January 2009, McConnell has used all his power in the Senate to obstruct Obama’s legislative agenda. In 2010 he declared “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president”. McConnell is now one of the “moderates” within the Republican Party.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz has emerged as the undisputed leader of the congressional Tea Party. Over the next three years he will make a bid for the Republican presidential nomination, which eluded the Tea Party in 2012. In the meantime, “establishment” Republicans may fear for their jobs, but will also see opportunities.

By appearing as a reasonable alternative to the Tea Party, the Republican establishment can drag the “compromise” position with Democrats further and further to the right. The relationship between the Tea Party and the establishment may be far more co-operative than it appears.


This is the second part in our series. Read the other parts below.

US economic policy: the right settings, disastrous process

Obamacare can’t make sense in a divided economy

A culture of dysfunction: is Washington headed for Groundhog Day?