A History of the Tea Party Movement

Historic re-enactors Kevin Grantz as George Washington and Gerry Notare as Patrick Henry pose for a photograph with Tea Party activist Nighta Davis of Hiawassee, Georgia
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The tea party movement may only be a few years old, but the beginning of the movement is often misunderstood and misreported. While the tea party is often portrayed as being purely an anti-Obama movement, the truth is that the Republican Party has always been as much a target as President Obama and the Democrats.

The Tensions Rise During the George W. Bush Years

While the tea party may have formerly started after Obama took office, anger over federal spending and a rapidly bloating government began to surface during the big-spending years of the George W. Bush administration. While Bush scored points with conservatives on his tax policies, he also fell into the trap of spending too much money that didn't exist. He pushed for a large expansion of entitlements and, most dangerously, continued the Clinton-era policies that led to the collapse of the housing market and financial industries.

While conservatives opposed these big spending measures, it is also true that they lagged far behind their liberal-counterparts in vocalizing anger, showing up at Capitol Hill to protest, or rallying thousands of people at any given time to support a cause or oppose a policy. Until the rise of the tea party, the conservative idea of activism was to shut down the congressional switchboard. Yet despite one disappointment after the next from our elected leaders, voters continued to send the same people back year after year. It would take a major economic crisis to help

Sarah Palin Rallies a Crowd

Prior to the 2008 elections, it seemed as though conservatives had no clue how to rally a crowd around a cause. While they had their moments — opposing Bush's immigration policies and Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers to name two--a real movement was hard to come by. But in 2008, John McCain selected Sarah Palin to be his vice-presidential candidate and suddenly the Republican base did something they never really did before: they showed up.

When Palin joined the Republican ticket, people suddenly started attending rallies. McCain events had to be moved to larger venues. Rather than attracting hundreds of people like McCain had been doing, Palin was attracting thousands instead. Palin was hard-hitting, despite being seemingly restrained by the establishment. She gave one of the greatest convention speeches ever, where she hit out at Barack Obama and saw her popularity soar. She connected with people. And while she was eventually destroyed and rendered ineffective during the 2008 campaign, her ability to actually get thousands of people to rally for a cause would jump-start the future tea party movement, and she would eventually become the top draw at future tea party events nationwide.

Rick Santelli Delivers a Message

Shortly after his inauguration in January of 2009, President Obama began pushing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a package costing close to $1 trillion. Already infuriated with the final years of the Bush administration that saw multibillion-dollar bailouts and payoffs, conservative outrage of the fiscal insanity was escalating rapidly. After the package passed, CNBC personality Rick Santelli took to the airwaves to deliver what would be the final spark to ignite the tea party flames.

In what turned out to perfectly summarize tea party sentiment, Santelli took to the floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange and stated "the government is promoting bad behavior... This is America! How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor's mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can't pay their bills? Raise their hand." When the floor traders started booing the government policies, Santelli dropped the "President Obama, are you listening?" line.

In the rant, Santelli also stated that "We're thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July. All you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I'm gonna start organizing." The clip was widespread, and the first tea party rallies were held eight days later on February 27th, 2009, where tens of thousands of protesters showed up in over 50 cities to voice opposition to the Bush and Obama spending sprees.

Tea Party Targets Republicans and Democrats

Challenging Democrats in November elections is always a fun thought for tea party members. But it is not their first goal. The tea party does not exist to challenge only Democrats simply to return the same Republicans who rubber-stamped the big government Bush agenda for eight years. And this is why the first victims of the tea party in any given election cycle are always Republicans.

The first goal of the tea party was to target liberal Republicans up for reelection. Arlen Specter (PA), Charlie Crist (FL), Lisa Murkowski (AK), and Bob Bennett (UT) were just a few of the many politicians backed by the mainstream GOP but opposed by the tea party. Specter saw his time was up and bailed to join the Democrats. When Crist realized he was soon to lose to a young conservative star in Marco Rubio, he jumped ship and ran as an independent. Bennett was so unpopular he couldn't even earn a primary slot. Murkowski lost her primary also but was eventually saved by the Democrats after launching a write-in campaign.

Only after getting a strong foothold in the Republican Party by knocking off incumbent or establishment Republicans would the tea party focus their attention on Democrats. As a result, the myth of the "blue dog" Democrat was mostly destroyed and the GOP decimated the ranks of so-called conservative Democrats. It would be over three years since the start of the tea party movement before conservatives would have a shot at President Obama. The number of Republicans that the tea party has brought down is proof enough that this is about more than just one man.

Final Takeaway

The tea party does not exist because of one individual. It exists as a result of the constant and rapid growth of government under both Republican and Democratic-led governments. The tea party does not care whether there is a D or an R next to a politician's name or whether a politician is Black, white, man, or woman. If a Republican is elected president, the tea party will exist to hold him just as accountable as they hold President Obama. Anyone seeking proof can ask any of the many moderate Republicans who have been ousted in primaries for failing to follow the principles of limited government.

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Hawkins, Marcus. "A History of the Tea Party Movement." ThoughtCo, Jan. 18, 2021, thoughtco.com/a-history-of-the-tea-party-movement-3303278. Hawkins, Marcus. (2021, January 18). A History of the Tea Party Movement. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/a-history-of-the-tea-party-movement-3303278 Hawkins, Marcus. "A History of the Tea Party Movement." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/a-history-of-the-tea-party-movement-3303278 (accessed June 8, 2023).