Volume 1 No. 2 Summer 2017

The Tea Party In Retrospect

  • Vanessa Williamson

Catalyst interviews Vanessa Williamson, coauthor (with Theda Skocpol) of The Tea Party & the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.

Can you remind us about the developments that drove the Tea Party’s initial appearance in the wake of Obama’s election in November 2008?

Within weeks of President Obama’s inauguration, there were scattered local protests opposing his approach to stabilizing the American economy. There were demonstrations against the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (popularly known as the “economic stimulus package”), against Obama’s housing policies, and so on. These protests were very small — often a few dozen people. You’d see signs calling for “states’ rights” and all kinds of other things. It was far from a coordinated movement.

The use of phrases like “states’ rights” should remind us that the Tea Party did not spring from nowhere. The Republican Party has been moving rightward for decades, and it was not a coincidence that several Tea Party activists I interviewed dated their first political experience to Barry Goldwater. The Tea Party was simply a new iteration of that politics.

You start to see concerted “Tea Party” events in late February 2009, after Rick Santelli, a CNBC news personality, went on a “rant” on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile exchange, complaining that Obama’s housing policies would benefit irresponsible people at the expense of hardworking Americans, and calling for a “Chicago Tea Party” to address the issue. The speech was picked up by conservative radio hosts and eventually by Fox News, which actively promoted the April 15 “Tax Day” Tea Party rallies for weeks in advance. Fox News hosts acted as headliners for Tea Parties across the country. The “Tea Party” symbolism gave conservatives, disheartened after the defeats of 2006 and 2008, a new label to rally behind.

That summer, Tea Party members participated angrily in their representatives’ town hall meetings, and in September there was another large Tea Party protest in Washington. Early the following year, Republican candidates won some surprising elections — including Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts — and in the midterm elections, Republicans retook the House and were in a position to stymie the Obama administration’s agenda for the next six years.

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