The meteoric rise of the tea party -- and the limits of its power
After a year and a half of stirring America's political pot, the tea party and its followers on Election Day won about 35 percent of the seats they targeted. Going forward, the tea party may find its strength to be at the state and local level.
(Page 2 of 3)
Going from guys and gals in tricorn hats outside some county courthouse on tax day last year to rejiggering national electoral dynamics 18 months later is certainly a major political accomplishment, especially for a decentralized interest group without an anointed leader.Skip to next paragraph
How Newt Gingrich won over the tea party
Where did the tea party go? Into the trenches
Tea party activists audited by city. Would that happen to Occupy protesters?
From personhood amendment to Ohio Issue 2, not a banner election for tea party
Is Michele Bachmann dragging the tea party down with her?
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The tea party got its first major spark in February 2009, when TV reporter Rick Santelli railed against an Obama administration program involving mortgages and called for a new "Chicago tea party." After that, mostly older, conservative Americans started peacefully protesting – sometimes in clusters of just six or seven people – in hundreds of big cities and small towns from California to Maine.
Those protests helped establish a general tea party umbrella that attracted Americans of all stripes, including GOP leaders such as Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Sarah Palin. In the process, they upset political balances in crucial primaries and eventually reached, among other things, the election this week of several black Republicans and an Indian-American female governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley.
Along the way, the tea party movement picked up flotsam in its trawl net, giving fuel to critics who paint it as hopelessly fringe and even a dangerous throwback. Reams of polls and doctoral dissertations have parsed its associations with everyone from white supremacy groups in Idaho to New York millionaires.
Yet the tea party movement has seemed to thrive off such criticism.
Political analysis around the tea party's rise nearly always misses the mark, says Mr. Adkerson, the Adairsville tea party activist. "It's just the American spirit, man – that's it," he says. "It's a human love of liberty. It spreads like fire."
Many who support the tea party – which is really nothing more than an amalgam of loosely tied local, state, and national group – have done so out of a sense that the people weren't being heard. America's economic woes and the rising national debt only added to the fire.
Independents especially "are always stuck with liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, and they're neither: They swing back and forth," says Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. "The tea party could get those voters who wanted things moving in the other direction, who see [the tea party] as a way to get a balance."