What is the Tea Party?

At Sarah Palin’s Tea Party Convention speech in Nashville, she was careful to say that the Tea Party movement has no leader and should remain that way- a leaderless, spontaneous, grassroots movement of the people. But without an official organization, platform, or leader, the Tea Party movement finds itself struggling to find an identity, a definition, and a common purpose. What is the Tea Party?

The Tea Party’s lack of leadership should pose no problem for the astute observer in determining its nature and purpose. While it may be without an official platform, it does certainly have an implicit one. If the Tea Party is a spontaneous, grassroots movement, then we simply need to determine the central message of the Tea Party’s “collective mind.” And while there may be differences of opinion among various “Tea Partiers” and myriad pet causes within the movement, there is one central message that emerges from what seems like a cacophony.

All we have to do to hear that message is look at the Tea Party’s name. Of all the different things to call itself, of all the different ways to frame its cause, the theme that emerged from the collective dissatisfaction of its activists was the Boston Tea Party of 1773. It is around this event and symbol that the Tea Partiers rallied. So with all their many differences and even disagreements, the one thing they all agree to is that America needs another Tea Party.  What happened on December 16, 1773- that needs to happen again.

What happened at the first Boston Tea Party? Here’s the story: The English had fought a very expensive war against the French to expand its global empire. The global economy was shaky. English taxes and regulations were strangling its economy, and the East India Trading Company was about to run out of money (you know- suffer a near-term liquidity crisis?). Since it was “too big to fail”, the English decided to pass a bailout bill- the Tea Act, which imposed a tax on the American people. Angry that they had been taxed without representation, they refused to pay the tax. When told that the English tea ships wouldn’t leave the harbor until their cargo was unloaded, the people of Boston disguised themselves as Native Americans and dumped the tea overboard.

What does this tell us about the Tea Party of today? That whatever other differences they may have, the people who felt enough like the Bostonian dissidents in 1773 to name themselves after the Tea Party, are united in their outrage against extravagant spending (just look at our deficit), corporate welfare (like the TARP bill), taxation without representation (which happens every day at the Federal Reserve Bank), and a distant, disinterested government (yes, that would be Washington D.C.). This is what the Tea Party is about. It is primarily a movement opposed to confiscatory taxes used to reward corporate lobbying. It is a movement opposed to that two-headed monster- Big Corporations and Big Government- which threatens to devour the vast part of the fruits of American labor.

So anyone who tells you that the Tea Party is about a stronger national defense, getting tough on illegal immigration, maintaining a strategic military alliance with the nation of Israel, fighting a crusade against Islamic militants, making sure America remains One Nation Under God, or making sure the Republican Party takes back Washington- is simply mistaken. That was not the spirit, purpose, or nature of the original Tea Party in Boston, and neither is it the spirit, purpose, or nature of that collective grassroots voice that said “Enough is enough! We need another Tea Party.”

*Editor’s note:  For a closer look at the origin of the modern tea party, as well as a more critical perspective of its current manifestation, click here.