A Review of the Tea Party – Part 1: Introduction

Depiction of the Boston Tea Party

I do not mean to say, that the scenes of the revolution are now or ever will be entirely forgotten; but that like everything else, they must fade upon the memory of the world, and grow more and more dim by the lapse of time.

– Abraham Lincoln, 1838

Beyond typical partisanship lie the fringe. They never cease to exist, while never (seemingly) finding home in a mainstream party. Just like McCarthyism in the 1950s and the Silent Majority in the 1980s, a new wave of fringe support sprouted in early 2007 and has since continued at a low boil called the Tea Party. Once an anti-tax and anti-government protest during the initial moments of a recession, the movement made gains with the run and subsequent nomination of Barack Obama in late 2007. After edging out the nomination, John McCain set out to take the White House while catering certain parts of his platform to Tea Party extremists. Very early in their existence, it became clear among their other “antis” was arrogance and ignorance. One of the best examples was John McCain’s encounter with a disheveled supporter at a townhall meeting where the moment required him to counter her racist claim that Barack Obama was an “Arab” and “Muslim”.

By October of 2008, the Tea Party’s support and coalition forced critics and mainstream Republicans to recognize them as a legitimate political force. The problem has not been their “antis”, or arrogance, or ignorance, rather their outright attempt at manipulation of historical fact and creating an “anti-history” in an attempt to force a more palatable narrative for their constituents.

After spending the last seven years watching the build up of this conservative movement, a litany of negative elements have built against their own success. Jill Lepore points to a flawed collective memory and, as she boldly proclaims, the Tea Party, along with previous fringe movements, “When in doubt, in American politics, left, right, or center, deploy the Founding Fathers.”[ref]Jill Lepore, The Whites in Their Eyes. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010, 14.[/ref] With Lepore’s ideas, an understanding of libertarian thought and neoliberal economic theory seems to be a more thorough explanation of party’s purpose, but a deification of the Founding Fathers and a purposeful twisting of United States history contributes to a view that some even in the Republican Party identify the Tea Party as out of sorts in the American political psyche. The impact of fringe groups can leave deep, irreversible scars on society. As the current volatile political landscape takes shape, it’s impossible not to notice the new, extreme ends of the political spectrum. This isn’t an anomaly in history, but unusual in American history as the most prominent galvanizing point would be the Civil War, an image burned into the American psyche no matter what side taken. From the 2008 Presidential Election and well into the future, the Tea Party is a political force here to stay. The populism it stirs has been unmatched by the liberal wing of the Democratic party, but comes with serious flaws and a background of (sometimes deliberately) erroneous history.

Members of the Tea Party like to quote the Founding Fathers and revolutionaries of the time, but fall short in completely understanding every aspect of their lives. Sam Adams spoke directly about this:

“A general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy. While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue then will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader.”

Tea Party members indulge in quoting the Founding Fathers, but cherry-pick aspects of their words and lives. If they truly engaged with Adams’s quote, they would evaluate the purpose of virtue, both then and now: virtue, then, was achieved by only those that could afford it or were emancipated to the point of exercising independence for themselves. It might be that they are unknowingly victims of their own belief system as they fail to correctly discuss the disenfranchised, now and then, who have nothing to surrender, not even their virtue. Interpretation of history will always be subjective, as it should be, but the Tea Party fails when they twist the history of events to meet their needs and proclamations.

This could not be more evident than when an elected U.S. representative from Montana who called for another “Operation Wetback”, originally a 1954 program to end the U.S. initiated “Bracero” program of imported labor. As Helena real estate agent, representative Drew Turiano, ran for a congressional position in 2013 elaborated when stating, “It was called ‘Operation Wetback’ and that policy repatriated about 1.4 million illegal aliens that were in America from Mexico…He repatriated them along with their American-born children. President Eisenhower did that, it was called Operation Wetback. I think America needs another Operation Wetback.”  I’ve done research on the U.S. initiated Bracero Program for my graduate degree and can confirm President Eisenhower approved the operation in hopes of curbing a tidal wave of illegal entrants in the 1950s. One of the leading historians of the Bracero Program, Kitty Calavita, noted Cold War rhetoric fanned the flame of discontent with the large number of Mexican workers crossing the border for work.[ref]Calavita, Kitty. Inside the State: The Bracero Program, Immigration, and the I.N.S. New York: Routledge, 1992.[/ref] The problem was not from loose border restrictions, but from the program itself: a program in conjunction with the Mexican government to import laborers in order to account for a labor shortage at the onset of World War II. Again, this program was INITIATED by the United States’ federal government. The Founding Fathers, not the Tea Party’s vision of them, would be turning in their graves upon learning this exclusive, anti-democratic lens the Tea Party views history through.

After watching this movement take place over the course of the Obama Administration, a review of it’s origins,  a lengthy historical review, and the party’s political future, is the goal of this and a succession of posts. One aspect of the Tea Party is its invention of a new historical narrative which shaped the current collective memory of the founding of the United States of America. Another would be the acceptance of traditional libertarian values into the mainstream Republican platform. Race and religion become another contention point as they explain how stringent views shape the party’s exclusive past. The books evaluated in the successive posts, which also look at the aforementioned points, are as follows:

Alterman, Eric. Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama. New York: Nation, 2011. Print.
Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2001. Print.
Bunch, William. The Backlash: Right-wing Radicals, Hi-def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama. New York: Harper, 2010. Print.
Dimaggio, Anthony R. The Rise of the Tea Party: Political Discontent and Corporate Media in the Age of Obama. New York: Monthly Review, 2011. Print.
DiSalvo, Daniel. Engines of Change: Party Factions in American Politics, 1868-2010. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.
Foley, Elizabeth Price. The Tea Party: Three Principles. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2012. Print.
Formisano, Ronald P. The Tea Party: A Brief History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2012. Print.
Kabaservice, Geoffrey M. Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.
Lepore, Jill. The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2010. Print.
Parker, Christopher S., and Matt A. Barreto. Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2013. Print.
Rosenthal, Lawrence, and Christine Trost. Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party. Berkeley: U of California, 2012. Print.
Skocpol, Theda, and Vanessa Williamson. The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.
Wood, Gordon S. The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.
Zernike, Kate. Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America. New York: Times /Henry Holt, 2010. Print.

In support of the previously mentioned arguments, these works on the Tea Party and an evaluation of their collective memory is the premise of this series of posts. I have waited a long time to write this series and in doing so have built up a moderate body of evidence to assert my argument the Tea Party struggles to define itself within the GOP, the party’s (and its constituents’)  historical and political narrative is blatantly incorrect.

With all this, there is much to say about the merits of history as a method to drive a narrative. The attempted use of history in any way is a fallacy in the field. The argument of the this series is to evaluate the facts of this movement, not to use history to massage facts to fit a narrative, a counter to what the Tea Party has done. Course-correcting the anti-history ship of the Tea Party requires a critical review of the historical narrative recounted by prior, critical works have evaluated the movement. If the contemporary fashion is to “use” history, this series of posts may seem to fall prey to presentism. This is not the purpose, which is to evaluate the short lived history of the Tea Party. As it has been relatively easy for the Tea Party to “use” history for their purpose, we all fall to the storm of presentism if we’re not careful. Abraham Lincoln’s quote above may reflect this point. Even as John Adams reflected on the American Revolution, he knew the pitfalls of how it might be used to prove a point: “The history of our revolution will be one continued [lie] from one end to the other.” [ref]Lepore, The Whites in Their Eyes. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010, 44.[/ref] As Lincoln said, the revolution “will never be forgotten.”


Table of Contents

  • A Review of the Tea Party – Part 1: Introduction
  • A Review of the Tea Party – Part 2: Book Review of The Whites in Their Eyes by Jill Lepore
  • A Review of the Tea Party – Part 3: Collective Memory
  • A Review of the Tea Party – Part 4: The 2012 Election
  • A Review of the Tea Party – Part 5: The Future of the Tea Party
  • A Review of the Tea Party – Part 6: Conclusion
The Gadsden Flag, a hallmark for the Tea Party