It calls for smaller government. It wants to take America back. Its members oppose President Obama’s health care legislation. It fears fascists and socialists and sees opponents in the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, and everywhere in between. It wants to end the Federal Reserve, to balance the budget, and to ensure that the U.S. is the leading nation in the world. It has powerful supporters, if not leaders, in Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck.
Meet the tea party of 2010. But don’t mistake the above as a uniform description of the party’s platform: This grassroots, decentralized group of Americans is sometimes contradictory, often feisty, and always flummoxing to the politicians it wants to oust. However, the tea party’s followers have found common cause in at least one thing: outrage — outrage at an array of topics, from government spending to social mores. Ultimately, the party members insist that the U.S. is on the wrong track, and believe they’re the ones to lead the country in the right direction again.
Opponents say they’ve got it wrong. In the tea party, they see sinister signs and the kind of anger that arises when people attack others based on their beliefs, their religion, their race, their lifestyles. The tea party, they fear, represents an America in which equality is only for the rich, for those who trace their ancestors to Western Europe, and for those who worship the proper way. Even if the movement were only about fiscal responsibility, opponents worry, its ideas of economics would wreck the country.
The tea party adherents say they represent us. Those against the party hope that isn’t so. The truth of the tea party is complex, and its motives remain debatable. What isn’t in question is that in less than two years, this loose aggregation has shaken American politics in a way most of us have never seen — and we are obsessed. And at a time when Wall Street and Washington are more interconnected than ever, investors can’t afford to ignore the tea party’s rapid rise to prominence.
After all, it was on the leading business news channel, CNBC, that the groundwork for the tea party was laid — although the man responsible couldn’t have known at the time just what he had started. In February 2009, on-air editor Rick Santelli, in the midst of an angry critique of government aid for some homeowners, uttered the phrase that seemed to begin it all: “We’re thinking of having a Chicago tea party in July. All you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I’m going to start organizing.”
Now, a mere 21 months later, politicians running as Republicans but holding themselves up as unabashed champions of the tea party, have found their way to the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives, and state governor mansions. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida are two of the more prominent, and they’re preparing for six-year terms in Washington. In Nevada, Sharron Angle nearly beat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, while in Alaska Lisa Murkowski lost in the GOP primary to tea party insurgent Joe Miller.
However, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for this new collective. Christine O’Donnell failed to win the Senate seat in Delaware, and Murkowski stormed back in the general election as a write-in candidate.
What does the tea party mean for Wall Street? In the world of business and on trading floors, support tends to flow to candidates who support less government regulation and lower taxes. Everything else is secondary. If the tea party does succeed in limiting government, it can likely count on future support not just from Santelli’s post in Chicago, but also in lower Manhattan.