Government & Politics

What Ever Happened to the Tea Party?

It's how we channel that anger that matters.

Nate Jackson · Jan. 22, 2016

On Dec. 16, 1773, “radicals” from Boston, members of a secret organization of American Patriots called the Sons of Liberty, boarded three East India Company ships and threw 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. This iconic event, in protest of oppressive British taxation and tyrannical rule, became known as the Boston Tea Party. So one might say those of us on the Liberty side of the aisle have always been a rowdy bunch.

Three years after that very first Tea Party, the rebellion had grown to such extent that our Founders were willing to give up their fortunes and lives, attaching their signatures to the Declaration of Independence, which said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

The Founders didn’t take back their country; they created it and gave it to their posterity, all by overthrowing the establishment.

Fast forward to today and there has been much debate over the direction the modern Tea Party has taken. In response to the Democrats' outrageous spending spree in 2009 and 2010, the Tea Party rekindled under the banner of limiting government, particularly in the areas of taxing and spending.

As Mark Alexander put it in 2010, “Today, once again, we find ourselves subject to unjust taxation. And while we enjoy a token and technical representation in Congress, we are continually being taxed for purposes not expressly authorized by our Constitution. That tax burden is levied to satiate contemporaneous political constituencies, but at an ever-increasing cost under which free enterprise will, ultimately, collapse.”

At the time, Barack Obama disparaged Tea Party Patriots as a gang of malcontents “waving their little teabags,” belittling them as too ignorant for “a serious conversation.” After all, he was busy spending trillions of dollars on “stimulus” and other redistributive efforts to favored Democrat constituents, and he couldn’t be bothered with moderation, much less constitutional constraints. Even after the Tea Party fueled the wave elections of 2010 and 2014, Obama remained as dismissive and petulant as always.

But the Tea Party, too, held its ground. Alexander wrote, “The greatest strength of the grassroots Tea Party movement is its lack of any central organization — it is a genuine grassroots movement. Despite the best efforts of GOP establishment types, Libertarians and other special interest groups endeavoring to co-opt the Tea Party for their own political agendas, these Patriots have shown remarkable devotion to their guiding principles, rejecting any and all suitors attempting to commandeer the movement.”

That remains true for some contingent of Tea Partiers, but not all. As with all movements of any size, people of all kinds can be attracted to it and change it in various ways. This happened to the Tea Party as it expanded beyond fiscal issues to include social and national security ones. Now, it’s gotten to the point that some wonder if the Tea Party is dead.

It’s true that there are those who identified with the movement who were always less interested in the principled, constitutional conservatism on which it was founded than on nationalist and populist anger. As Rush Limbaugh declared Wednesday, “Nationalism and populism have overtaken conservatism in terms of appeal.” We too noted Wednesday that this was particularly evident with Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump, his “New York values” notwithstanding.

The difference between the two philosophies is simple: Conservatism seeks to conserve a set of principles — to support and defend our Constitution, which sets forth a limited government of enumerated powers. Conservatism advances the cause of Liberty. By contrast, populism seeks to use whatever means necessary, including big government run by “our guys,” to reach the desired outcome of returning to bygone glory days. There’s a lot of overlap, but the two are not the same.

Now, to be sure, the whole throwing tea in the metaphorical harbor thing is still a uniting factor. Trump supporters are angry and not gonna take it any more. So are most other conservatives. But it’s how we channel that anger that matters.

Take immigration. Our current system — if we can even call it that — is a disaster. Our border is Swiss cheese, but that’s not all. Hundreds of thousands are overstaying their visas and remain in the country illegally. Worse, we have a lawless chief executive. Yet immigration itself isn’t the root problem. Rather it’s politicians who want to carve out constituent groups and who want to divide us by color, preventing assimilation, unity or patriotism. We shouldn’t oblige them, because Liberty is colorblind.

Or take government spending, the original Tea Party cause. When it comes right down to it, most Americans are more than happy to cut spending — as long as it’s the other guy’s spending. “Don’t touch my ____!” is a rallying cry for just about everyone. Hence, spending keeps growing. Even the sequester only cut spending growth, not actual outlays. To put it another way, politicians in Washington didn’t sell out the American people, they heard exactly what the people were saying.

So we suppose the Tea Party is in a bit of an identity crisis. For those of us who treasure our position as heirs to the Liberty bequeathed by our Founders, our challenge is this: Remember our foundation. Remember our principles. Remember our Constitution. If we lose sight of first principles, the Tea Party becomes nothing but a failed anger management therapy group.

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