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What is the 'tea party' and how is it shaking up American politics?

Here's your guide to FAQs about the tea party: What is the tea party? How did the movement get started? Could it determine the balance of congressional power?

By Staff writer / September 15, 2010

People gathered at the Capitol on Sunday for a 'Remember in November' rally to express opposition to government spending, particularly bailouts and economic policies backed by President Obama and Democrats in Congress.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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In recent months, the "tea party" movement has swept across the political landscape, sending shivers through both major political parties and shaking up this year’s midterm elections.

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What began as a minor insurgency featuring protesters waving signs of dubious syntax, followed by racially tinged conspiracies about President Obama’s lineage and religion and ostentatiously displayed firearms – and cheered on by some conservative commentators and bloggers – is now winning elections that could determine the balance of power in the US Congress. (The main question here is, does the trend favor Republicans or Democrats?)

There is no such thing as the “tea party.” It is not organized as such, and in fact the movement in some sense is antiparty – even though most of its political pot-stirring has been within the GOP.

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The “Taxed Enough Already” movement took initial aim at federal government attempts to bail out and then stimulate a faltering economy – attempts that had begun during the Bush administration – as well as at the Obama administration’s push for health-care insurance reform.

If the movement had a symbolic beginning, it was in January 2009 with stock-trader Graham Makohoniuk’s call to mail tea bags to members of Congress. Conservative bloggers took up the theme, CNBC’s Rick Santelli made his famous rant against government help for underwater home mortgages, and public protests around the country began.

Since then, the movement has sprouted (although not been defined or controlled by) several major organizations.

Tea Party Patriots says it has more than 1,000 community-based tea party groups around the country. The group’s mission is to “attract, educate, organize, and mobilize our fellow citizens to secure public policy consistent with our three core values of Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government and Free Markets,” according to its website.

FreedomWorks, chaired by former US House majority leader Dick Armey, claims “hundreds of thousands of grassroots volunteers nationwide.” FreedomWorks goes back to 1984, but has become a major source of the tea party movement’s promotion and activities. It was an organizer of last Sunday’s Taxpayer March on Washington.

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