Kirk Lennon

The Imploding Tea Party

Published by Kirk on .

In 1773, a group of Americans calling themselves the Sons of Liberty threw chests of tea into Boston Harbor as an act of protest against what they deemed to be unfair taxes. It has since become an iconic symbol of patriotism and early American independence. In 2009, a diverse group of people appropriated the symbolism of this event and created the “Tea Party.” A new contingent of ultra–right-wingers invaded the formerly center-right Republican Party, and rode their way to numerous Congressional and state-level victories in 2010. After peaking in the mid-term elections, support for the Tea Party has rapidly collapsed, as victims of the Great Recession have found the newly-elected representatives to be obstinate, destructive, bigoted, or legitimately crazy. In a Gallup poll released in December 2013, the Tea Party’s favorability rating fell to a record low of 30%, and for the first time ever, a majority (51%) held an unfavorable opinion of the upstart group. To understand the movement’s changing fortunes, one must understand the group itself.

Self-presented as upstart patriots “reclaiming” the nation, the Tea Party actually comprises four distinct—and largely incompatible—core constituencies.

Corporatists (aka the only people who actually benefit from the Tea Party)

The image of the everyday man, driven to action by an overbearing government is a fiction. In reality, the Tea Party is the creation of a very few, very wealthy conservative individuals, in particular the billionaire Koch brothers. Thanks to the Citizens United court ruling and unfettered policies with super-PACs, a handful of the super rich were able to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars into faux-grassroots rallies and political campaigns, in order to elect politicians who would give them exactly what they wanted.

For context, in 2000, the presidential campaigns spent a combined $343 million. Four years later, George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign managed to spend $345 million by itself. Then the real money started. According to the Washington Post, a Koch brothers network spent $407 million during the 2012 campaign, just shy of the Romney campaign’s $433 million.

The Corporatists, so few in number, see the other Tea Party groups as “useful idiots” that they can influence to win elections. In addition to the overt campaign ads, other primary means of influence include the multi-millionaire Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and (billionaire) Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News.

Anarcho-Libertarians (aka Gun-Nuts)

This group is the only one that actually fits in with the official Tea Party story. They didn’t start the party, and they certainly don’t run it, but they joined in (mostly unwittingly) as the astroturf for the Corporatists’ new movement. This group of people believes that our current government is severely oppressive and many sincerely believe that it (along with the rest of our society) is on the verge of collapse. A terrifying example of this is The Citadel, a planned medieval-style fortress to be built in Idaho and occupied by “Patriots” who must pledge to own and train with assault rifles, and must carry a loaded sidearm whenever visiting the town center. They also have to keep their home stocked with enough food, water, and other provisions to last one year and participate in regular militia exercises. They’ll naturally fund this fortress by selling their own line of weapons to those Patriots living outside of fortress (and obviously in need of extra weapons to protect against the coming collapse).

The Citadel Patriots are by no means alone. “Operation American Spring” is the brainchild of right-wing activist/conspiracy theorist Dr. Jim Garrow. He is calling for coup d’état against President Obama and expects 30 million people to show up in Washington, DC in May. Perhaps it’s because they spend so much time among themselves, but Tea Partiers such as Dr. Garrow seem genuinely unaware that they represent only a very tiny, fringe element of society; the rest of us are not ready to march on our nation’s capital and violently overthrow our duly-elected leaders.

Of course these nuts don’t have any authority, but what about elected officials? There is an even scarier organization known as the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. This group—of elected sheriffs—proclaims the following in their mission statement:

This is our plan, our goal and our quest. We are forming the Constitutional Peace Officers Association which will unite all public servants and sheriffs, to keep their word to uphold, defend, protect, preserve, and obey the Constitutions of the United States of America. We already have hundreds of police, sheriffs, and other officials who have expressed a desire to be a part of this Holy Cause of Liberty.

We are going to train and vet them all, state by state, to understand and enforce the constitutionally protected Rights of the people they serve, with an emphasis on State Sovereignty and local autonomy. Then these local governments will issue our new Declaration to the Federal Government regarding the abuses that we will no longer tolerate or accept. Said declaration will be enforced by our Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers.

Peace officers exist to uphold and maintain the law. This group believes they get to choose which laws they choose to enforce. Their main objection is federal supremacy. Since they are so in love with the Constitution, let us reflect on Article VI, Clause 2:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.

This is known as the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution. It’s straightforward and not open to any confusing interpretations: federal law trumps all state laws. There are no exceptions or caveats. Any state (or local) law that conflicts with federal law (which also includes anything within the Constitution itself and ratified treaties) is automatically nullified. But the “Constitutional” sheriffs don’t like this fact, so they want to nullify federal law, ignoring the fact that the question of state nullification of federal law was settled 200 years ago. The mission statement continues with this delightful non sequitor:

In short, the CSPOA will be the army to set our nation free. This will guarantee this movement remains both peaceful and effective.

A “Holy” “army” of renegades with guns and body armor is going to peacefully set us free from our evil federal government that has abrogated our “Rights” by trying to provide better access to healthcare. Thanks, but no thanks.

These delusional groups believe that they are part of a “silent majority” that will soon rise up against the oppressors in DC. The Gallup poll just goes to show how incredibly out-of-touch these people are. They are on the extreme periphery, plotting for a future that will never come, and while the rest of us live our lives in the real world, they’re sharing conspiracy theories and stockpiling weapons that they’ll never use.

Christian Theocrats (aka Misogynists)

Some Tea Partiers, such as Rick Santorum, rail against the alleged intrusions of Obama administration, but they have no real desire for less government. They want a much more intrusive government; the difference is that they want it intruding on the liberties of others in favor of their own, overbearing religious edicts. They want government to intrude on the private medical decisions a woman makes with her doctor. In Texas right now, against her previously expressed wishes and the requests of her grieving husband, a brain dead woman’s corpse is being kept on “life” support as an incubator for what was a 14-week fetus. These theocrats slut-shame girls and women who express their sexuality. They fight to tear down the wall of separation between church and state. They want to impose their own religious views on everyone else, and especially on women.

Racists (aka All-of-the-Above)

This could arguably be categorized as a sort of supra-group, comprising many of the same individuals that constitute the other three groups, but I think it’s such a notable demographic of the Tea Party that it is worth discussing on its own. The level of vitriol directed at President Obama frequently includes inaccurate descriptors such as “socialist” (or the contradictory “fascist”), but beneath it is, all too often, a clear implication that the biggest issue is his skin color. Indeed, the entire “Birther” movement is simply one very thinly-veiled racist attack. Many Tea Partiers make careful use of racial code words to discretely appeal to racial prejudices. Even the absurd “Muslim” claims are really just code for “non-white.” Chief Justice Roberts’ destruction of the Voting Rights Act may suggest that racism has been solved in this country, but there are millions of Americans who think Obama shouldn’t be president based on his skin color alone. These horrid people have found a welcoming home in the Tea Party.

A House Divided

There are common threads among the four constituencies—notably the outward profession of support for individual rights, coupled with a disturbing desire to control everyone who disagrees—but the wildly-divergent end-goals of these distinct groups condemn the Tea Party to failure. They have few realistic concrete goals to collaborate on; their common goal of defeating Obama failed spectacularly with his successful reelection. The leading politicians of the movement, having gotten themselves elected, have proven incapable of actually governing. The growing antipathy towards to Tea Party is both well-deserved and welcome.