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?

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
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.

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.

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.

IN PICTURES: Tea Parties

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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.

The Tea Party Express, based in Sacramento, Calif., was a major force behind the Republican primary victories of Sharron Angle in Nevada, Joe Miller in Alaska, and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware. It was also a major donor to Scott Brown’s successful campaign for US Senate in Massachusetts.

There may not be a “tea party” per se, but its adherents' philosophy and aims are officially represented on Capitol Hill. In July, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota formed the Tea Party Caucus. Fifty lawmakers quickly joined the group.

While national organizations and grass-roots groups have their own stated goals, there is a tea party manifesto of sorts, which candidates are being encouraged to endorse. It’s the Contract From America, launched by Ryan Hecker, an attorney and activist in Houston.

Meanwhile, a clearer picture of tea partyers is emerging.

In March, the Sam Adams Alliance, a Chicago-based nonprofit, issued a report based on a national survey of the tea party movement, its leaders, and their motivations.

Among the findings:

• 86 percent oppose the formation of a third party.
• 36 percent support a 2012 Sarah Palin presidential candidacy.
• 81 percent have a website for their organization.
• 90 percent cited “to stand up for my beliefs” when characterizing their initial reason for involvement.
• 62 percent identified as Republicans, 28 percent as Independents, 10 percent as “Tea Party.”

“Tea Party activists are for the most part new to this role,” the report states. “They are neither practiced nor polished in activism; but having experienced a taste of the empowerment that comes with action, they feel more than ever that this is their time to act. Above all, they are motivated by a fear of NOT acting.... Their diversity is their strength, and they are not a movement that can easily be defined by those jumping up to lead them. They are powerful and, in this sense, they are the ‘early adopters’ of a new type of political involvement.”

More recently, the Sam Adams Alliance reports that significant numbers of newcomers to the tea party movement are dropping their affiliation with the GOP: Forty-seven percent changed their political affiliation to “Independent/unaffiliated,” 20 percent changed to “other,” 20 percent to “Tea Party,” and 13 percent to “Libertarian.”

That's exactly why Republicans as well as Democrats are very concerned about this new movement in American politics.

IN PICTURES: Tea Parties

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