No. 8: Tea Party

When the confetti cleared from the midterm elections, political analysts hunkered down to calculate the tea party effect. For two years participants and observers had tried to define the loose coalition of discontented, anti-government voters, but now actual wins and losses might pin down who these rabble-rousers were.

The most pressing question about the tea party in 2010 was: What is it all about? Specifically, curious people searched the Internet for “What is the tea party movement?”, “What is the tea party about?“, and “What does the tea party stand for?”

Many headlines, however, centered on the question of who the tea party members are. Are they libertarians in disguise? Old-school GOP? Disenfranchised working class? Elitists? Religious conservatives? Bigots revolting against the president’s racial heritage? All of the above? And how did former Alaska governor Sarah Palin figure into all that?

The thing about an evolving movement is, the snapshot constantly changes, and the view depends on where you’re standing when you take that shot. Although the tea party’s beginnings can be traced to a Seattle blogger, a CNBC reporter, and overall tax protesters against bailouts, the crusade reminded some of the 1992 populist outburst surrounding presidential candidate Ross Perot.

The “who” depended on whom you asked. A February CNN/Opinion Research survey described the activists as “male, rural, upscale, and overwhelmingly conservative,” although Quinnipiac University thought the group more female. A month later, a study by the Sam Adams Alliance found the majority were political newbies who opposed a third party. A New York Times/CBS poll in April found them “wealthier and more educated” people who find their taxes to date “fair,” rebutting one image of ill-informed malcontents. Less surprising was the tea partiers’ race (white), age (older than 45), and political perspective (very conservative). The least revelatory finding: They were an “angry” lot.

Patchwork Nation, a demographics project and a collaboration among multiple news organizations, took on the where question. Based on online membership sites, tea partiers were all across America but mostly in north Florida, central Texas, and northern parts of the mountain West.

The January 19 victory of Tea Party Express-endorsed Scott Brown for the Massachusetts Senate seat set off chatter about the nascent group’s power, although many Bostonians pointed to his Democratic opponent’s sloppy campaign. Tea partiers themselves credited “huge dissatisfaction … [that] transcended the movement.” Brown’s victory was seen as a “turning point,” although his later vote for the jobs bill proved he was, after all, representing all Yanks.

The polarizing but always folksy Palin emerged as perhaps the tea party’s most familiar friend, if not as a candidate for its spiritual leader. To surprised observers, she declined the Conservative Political Action Conference but delivered the keynote for the first National Tea Party Convention. She also delivered national attention, although her ticket fees ($349) and the presence of other late-to-the-tea-party conservatives bothered grassroots groups.

The unknowns got the bright, hot strobe light of political scrutiny — for better or for worse. Sharron Angle of Nevada, Joe Miller of Alaska, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mark Rubio of Florida, and Christine O’Donnell of Delaware became known beyond their state lines. Those who became punchlines were perhaps those who strayed too far from the tea party’s own Contract from America, laser-focused on fiscal policy and not social issues. But others rode into victory, in an election year that turned out mighty tough for all parties involved.

All predictions are for gridlock, as the freshmen prepare to storm Washington, D.C. But some agreement seemed to be reached days after the election: A letter addressed to Republican leaders marked a challenge to the evangelical base that dominated GOP politics for so long. The “nonpartisan” alliance of Tea Party Patriots, New American Patriots, and GOProud urged focus on “excessive spending, taxation and government intrusion,” and to “resist the urge to run down any social issue rabbit holes.”

What was the tea party movement in 2010? Getting to the point.

–Vera H-C Chan