Yes, we all like tea parties-what with lemon grass or milk, biscuits and long conversations, who wouldn’t? That is, if you’re unaware of the Boston Tea Party reference of 1773. An act of rebellion, the Boston Tea Party symbolized the defiance of American colonists in the face of British tea taxation laws as they hijacked a British ship and proceeded to “dump the cargo into Boston Harbor.” Fast forward to 2010 however and the indication still evokes strong emotions of mutiny. So, when CNBC report Rick Santelli proclaimed organizing a ‘Chicago Tea Party’ in protest over Obama’s ‘Stimulus Bill’ in 2009, it was only a matter of time before the Boston connotation caught on and snowballed into the ‘Tea Party movement’. Largely co-opting under the banner of reduced taxation and small government, the socio-political organization still remains an umbrella term for disgruntled Americans representing varied interests. Unsurprisingly then, internal cracks have begun to appear as clashing interests, unrealistic demands and controversies overshadow the movement’s political goals and what was once a potential force is now quickly becoming a ‘has-been’. But, why? What really is happening within?
Widely known as, the Tea (Taxed Enough Already) Party, the grassroots effort calls for a reduction in taxation, less financial government intervention, reduced spending and a repeal of the Health Care Reform law recently passed by the Obama administration. To earmark the significance of their tax demands, the party held a nationwide Tea Party as thousands of protestors lined the streets on Tax Day in different cities. However, what is ironic is the fact that most Tea Party members belong to the white, wealthy and generally conservative echelon of society according to pollsters. This inevitably implies their demands for reduced taxation only seethe a higher tax burden on the middle class in an attempt to secure their own interests. Moreover, most members are found to be ignorant of the tax structure and tax rate in the first place and assume they must be high enough if people are protesting and hence jump on the bandwagon. It was found that “including state, federal and local taxes-with sales and property tax thrown in-the average tax bill came out to be 9.2% of personal income in 2009. That’s down from an average of 12 percent of over the last 50 years.” When individually asked however, members overestimated the federal tax by almost double the percentage showing a dramatic wedge between perception and reality and this is where I believe the main problem lies. As is often pointed out the Tea Party doesn’t refer to a coherent whole, instead it is a blanket term of individually driven protests organizing under the same banner and hence there is no clear agenda. What results is an amalgamation of Americans with strikingly different woes in most cases, united only by their frustration and hence the boiling hot ‘Tea Party’ is quickly losing steam.
The fact that Tea Partiers are drenched in controversies also does not help their cause. From accusations of racism and media coverage bias to criticisms of intolerance, the party has been bogged down repeatedly since 2009 by mainstream censure. Although all accusations are publicly denied, the fact of the matter is that the association attracts all kinds of people-be it the religious conservatives, individuals and even outliers hence creating space for unaccounted views. It would be easy for say a racist supporter to join a tax protest and pass remarks without being liable to any single management or party head whilst funnelling all of the blame onto the whole. Additionally, many political and economic commentators including Paul Krugman believe, “the tea parties don’t represent a spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment. They’re Astroturf (fake grass roots) events manufactured by the usual suspects.” With opinions like this going around in mainstream newspapers and channels, the Tea Party’s credibility has been shrouded in doubt with most people being unable to really relate to the organization. This has led to only a minority, (more specifically equal to the African-American electorate overall) supporting the cause and without a well laid out structure, goal or disaffected political concern, it is likely that numbers will continue to shrink instead of the other way round. This is also made worse by the party’s political retinue and celebrity mascots associated with it including names like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann (of the ‘calling Obama Anti-American’ fame), and Glenn Beck amongst others. With an air of general disapproval surrounding these personalities, the party itself can’t really expect any different unless it cautiously chooses to make a break.
Coming back to the question though, in my opinion a lot of what is happening internally stems from the same primary problem; lack of a coherent and legitimate political agenda. With an array of supporters, most of whom belong to wealthy upper class families, in many cases have conflicting interests otherwise, and only vague goals that unite them, the Tea Party is vulnerable to internal and external pressures. Be it the negative publicity of the so called ‘proxy war’ between MSNBC and Fox News played out through party coverage or the government’s ‘frivolous’ response to their protests, what with Obama saying “when you see folks waving tea bags around, let me just remind them I am happy to have a serious conversation”, the Tea Party is struggling to be taken seriously. So unless, it can appeal to the common American with real, grave demands based on an in depth understanding of issues, it is more than likely this tea party won’t have a very long guest list.