Among the greatest concerns Tea Party leaders have voiced is the possibility that their movement could be co-opted by “the establishment” in Washington. Among the strongest criticisms of the Tea Party movement is that it already has been. To fully grasp what is really happening in the Tea Party, we have to begin by recognizing that there is no single, monolithic “Tea Party,” but many disparate politicians, media personalities, and groups of activists in cities and states throughout the country which claim the Tea Party moniker. It may be more accurate to speak in the plural– of the “Tea Parties.”
So who genuinely exemplifies Tea Party values and who is simply riding the popularity of the Tea Party brand for political gain? Many commentators say it’s hard to pin down a coherent set of Tea Party principles and policies, but the early history of the movement holds the answer. More and more mainstream journalists are acknowledging Ron Paul as the “godfather” of the modern Tea Party movement. While most GOP candidates for the 2008 presidential nomination seemed most concerned with the past eight years’ narrative of national security via the projection of U.S. military power abroad, Ron Paul’s dire economic predictions and concern over Washington’s fiscal solvency was a preview of the Tea Party protests to come.
In December of 2007, on the anniversary of the original Boston Tea Party, Ron Paul supporters broke fundraising records in a single day “money bomb” of massive online donations. His supporters called it “The Tea Party Money Bomb” and supporters even gathered in New Hampshire for what would later be called the first modern Tea Party rally. A year later, the financial crisis was in full swing, Congress had just put taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of billions in “toxic assets,” and president-elect Obama seemed poised to continue Bush’s legacy of fiscal recklessness. By February, outraged Americans had had enough, and when Rick Santelli called for a modern day Tea Party, thousands of protestors took to the streets with signs and slogans decrying the national debt and bailouts for big corporations.
It couldn’t be any clearer that the Tea Party movement was a push back against the ever-expanding role of Washington in our lives, including at least in part, the national security narrative of the Bush years that had played no small part in supporting the unprecedented expansion of the previous eight years. For the eight years of the Bush administration, conservatism had been primarily animated by neoconservatism, a political philosophy focused primarily on projecting America’s military power overseas to maintain its status as a global superpower and keep it safe from foreign aggression. The Tea Party represented a shift in focus to fiscal conservatism, asserting that the primary goal of conservatives should be to reduce the size, role, and influence of Washington because Americans were “Taxed Enough Already.”
As soon as the power and influence of the fledgling movement became evident, many politicians who had never been fiscal conservatives started to trade on the power of its name. Even those politicians who don’t brazenly claim to belong to the Tea Party when they do not will speak in its language of fiscal conservatism because that’s what voters want to hear today. Those politicians who ridiculed Ron Paul in 2008 were already tripping over themselves to sound like him in 2010. But their actions speak louder than their words. Michele Bachmann claims to be for limited government and Constitutional liberties, but voted to extend the Patriot Act which is so controversial for provisions that many critics say violate the Bill of Rights. Joining her was “Tea Party” Congressman Allen West.
Herman Cain is getting a lot of buzz from the Tea Party, but what will most Tea Party supporters think when they learn that he actually supported the TARP bailouts that sparked the first round of Tea Party protests, even writing a column to tell bailout opponents to “wake up” and deriding its critics as “free market purists?” Cain also endorsed Mitt Romney for president in 2008, whose “RomneyCare” legislation as governor will be a major liability for him in 2012. Cain even opposes an audit of the Federal Reserve bank, something most Tea Party goers –and even 80% of all voters according to a 2010 Rasmussen poll– support as a measure to rein in spending and maintain the value of the Dollar.
When politicians claim to belong to the Tea Party movement, but support and legislate positions that are more at home in Bush era conservatism than in today’s brand of fiscal conservatism, it behooves us to ask: Is the Tea Party being co-opted? Are such politicians really Tea Party supporters, or are they just old-fashioned neocons repackaged as teocons for 2011’s voters?