At first it seems absurd even to ask the question in the title. After all, the emergence of the Tea Partiers has been among the hottest political stories of the past year, and the group just came within inches of stymieing President Obama’s major agenda item.
But lately, it’s begun to appear that the Tea Partiers — at least as defined by the media — aren’t so much a new force of previously apolitical regular folks, stirred from their apathy by an expansion of government and Rick Santelli’s famous rant. Rather, they’re essentially conservative Republican base voters, who were demoralized by the failures of the Bush years and have been re-energized by Democratic control of Washington. And they’re part of a strain of the conservative movement that has long been driven by cultural resentment and racial paranoia.
Consider the movement’s most significant achievement to date: Scott Brown’s upset Senate victory in Massachusetts in January. But the most prominent Tea Party faction that offered concrete support to Brown — in the form of money, manpower, and an endorsement — was Tea Party Express. That’s the group that’s run by a team of well-connected California GOP political consultants, who have had a hand in numerous conservative and Republican causes over the years, including the 2003 recall of then-governor Gray Davis.
What hard facts exist about Tea Party activists support that view. According to a Quinnipiac poll released today, 77 percent of those calling themselves part of the Tea Party movement voted for John McCain in 2008. 74 percent are Republicans, or independent voters leaning Republican. And 88 percent are white. Said polling director Peter Brown: “[I]f the Tea Party were to run its own candidates for office, any votes its candidate received would to a very great extent be coming from the GOP column.”
Karl Rove appears to agree. He recently fretted to USA Today that the movement “could hurt Republicans if it backs third-party candidates who siphon votes from GOP candidates,” as the paper put it. That’s exactly what has the GOP so spooked in places where Tea Party candidates are on the ballot. John Ashjian, who’s running as a Tea Partier for the U.S. Senate from Nevada, has been attacked by local Republicans as a tool of the incumbent Democratic senator, Harry Reid.
It’s not quite as simple as this, though. Almost from the start, the Tea Party movement has been riven by the issue of whether, and how much, to work with the Republican Party. As we’ve reported, many grassroots Tea Partiers think both parties have sold out to corporate interests and are now irredeemably corrupt, and view their movement specifically as an antidote to the two-party system. This populism has some overlap with the left — particularly in its disdain for corporate power and its push for a more open and responsive politics.
But the grassroots Tea Partiers’ antipathy to the Republican Party is akin to that of the Nader-ites disdain for the Democratic Party of Al Gore in 2000. It’s primarily a disillusionment, driven by the sense that the party has abandoned its principles: the Tea Partiers often cite the growth of spending under President Bush and the Republican congress. In other words, those Tea Partiers who oppose working with the GOP do so by and large because they believe the party isn’t conservative enough.
Just as important, lately those voices have appeared to enjoy less sway in the movement. The National Tea Party Convention — denounced by many grassroots-ers as an inauthentic, profit-seeking scam — nonetheless was promoted by the media as the face of the Tea Party movement, while hosting an event that featured the GOP’s vice-presidential nominee as the keynote speaker. And at a highly publicized sit-down, RNC chair Michael Steele pledged cooperation with Tea Party leaders. The fact that the legitimacy of those leaders was quickly challenged by some anti-GOP Tea Parters mattered less than the impression of harmony conveyed.
That set the stage for this weekend’s protests at the Capitol. They were billed as Tea Party productions, but were in fact largely the work of Michael Patrick Leahy, a GOP online activist who founded Top Conservatives On Twitter, the hashtag that Karl Rove and other Beltway Republicans have helped make famous. Interviews conducted by TPMDC suggested that most of those who turned out were from the DC area.
Those protests, not incidentally, were characterized by violence, racism, and homophobia. The convention, too, showcased some of the more rancid strains of the conservative movement, with one speaker suggesting a desire to reinstate literacy tests for voting, and another questioning the president’s citizenship. Tea Party leaders have insisted that racism has no place in the movement, and many local Tea Party groups have acted quickly to sever ties with members who cross the line. But the recent incidents suggest that in addition to their Republican allegiance, the Tea Partiers have something in common with past generations of conservative activists who mobilized during earlier periods of perceived liberal ascendancy: the right-wing extremists of the early Clinton years, whose anti-government fervor helped stiffen the spines of Newt Gingrich’s GOP caucus, and even the John Birchers of the early 1960s, who openly denounced blacks and Jews, threw eggs at Adlai Stevenson in Dallas and accused JFK of being an agent of, variously, Soviet Russia and the pope.
In other words, the Tea Partiers are both a grassroots arm of the GOP, and descendants of past conservative movements characterized at least in part by racial grievances. That doesn’t mean their movement doesn’t exist. But it helps to understand where they’re coming from.