Tea Party News

What Happened to the Tea Party?

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I’ll give Business Insider some credit. After Tea Party-backed candidates came up empty across the board in Tuesday’s Republican primaries, the website that has spent years maligning our rule-of-law movement could have taken the low road.

Instead, blogger Brett Logiurato wrote a fair assessment of what’s happened to the GOP since February 27, 2009.

The much-talked about Republican “civil war” is over, at least for the people who thought it even existed in the first place. Both the Tea Party grassroots and the GOP establishment have taken lessons from the clashes over the past three election cycles. Republicans have learned to adopt more Tea Party talking points, and conservative grassroots voters have shown they are willing to back establishment candidates who have adopted their views.

Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/tea-party-establishment-republicans-2014-5#ixzz32PKbj6XG

Logiurato describes the changes in Mitch McConnell’s behavior to illustrate the fusion of the two factions:

In 2008, as he had been for much of his career, McConnell was a proud promoter of congressional earmarks and the money he was able to bring back to Kentucky. He ran an ad during that race boasting about the more than $1 billion he brought back to the state.
. . .
By 2010, as Tea Party earned a series of election victories and earmarks became a symbol of waste in Washington, McConnell helped end them. He won’t campaign on “bringing home the bacon” this year, and he stands firmly against an effort to bring back earmarks.


“McConnell’s evolving message shows how the real Tea Party can co-opt and win over the GOP establishment when it sticks to its principles,” wrote John Hart, Sen. Tom Coburn’s former communications director, on Real Clear Politics.

Getting Mitch McConnell to talk right is one thing; getting him to vote right is another. 

If the GOP lets the Export-Import Bank of Boeing die a graceful death this year, I’ll be impressed. If McConnell and the House leadership begin turning their backs on corporate lobbyists who use government to thwart innovation and kill competition, then the Tea Party can claim a big victory. But I’m not holding my breath.

Let’s face it: none of us knew what the hell we were doing when 50 little groups held simultaneous protests in February 2009. We had no plan for what to do after that first event, awkwardly titled The Nationwide Chicago Tea Party Protest. After that first wave, some of us got together on a call, and Mike Leahy offered a plan. He said “this is a 10-round, heavyweight fight that will end with knockout on Election Day 2010.”

Yeah, we did that. But we never really had a plan for how we would do it. We knew how to hold a damn fantastic rally, though, so we held a bunch of them. We knew how to change the narrative with video, and we did that. We knew how get under Barack Obama’s skin, and we did that.

But victory is often the cruelest defeat. Following the 2010 election, we thought big. Really damn big. We were certain we’d be calling the shots in 2012. After all, the GOP was on life support after the 2008 elections. George Will scolded conservatives for uttering the word “socialism.” The New York Times predicted a permanent Democrat majority in almost every state.

The only center-right heartbeat leading up to the 2010 election was in the Tea Party. At that first Tea Party, Hall of Famer Jackie Smith said he’d never been to a political rally before. He asked the crowd of over 1,000 people to raise their hands if this was their first time. Almost every hand went up.

These people were not on Republican walk lists. There not consistent voters. They were ordinary people answering a call. They were sick of a government that took their blue collar wages to spare Wall Street millionaires and 8-figure CEOs the embarrassment of admitting “we fucked up the world.”

Hell yes, we lost our focus after 2010. At least I did. I started dreaming about rebuilding the Reagan coalition. I was thrilled to stand alongside people who’d been in the trenches for decades. I didn’t ask if their one, true passion was letting people live their own lives. I assumed it. That was a mistake.

In hindsight, I should have been far more humble. I should have paid attention to my own warnings about assuming the future will be a linear progression of the recent past. But I ignored myself. I looked at the Tea Party’s (and my own) recent past and projected out into the future. I like what I saw. I saw myself on TV, and I thought I looked damn good. (I’m always too eager to get my stupid mug on TV. I watched way too much Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson starting way too young, but that’s another story.)

Three dangerous developments emerged in 2011 that I should have stopped. I didn’t. Either I didn’t want the confrontation, or didn’t realize the danger, or I was afraid that challenging a bad idea might drive away a faction–a faction I thought we needed.

Those three developments:

  1. Fascination with massive conspiracies.
  2. Hedonistic pleasure from angry protests.
  3. Intellectual isolationism around 18th century political philosophy.

Maybe someday I’ll explain those three developments in more detail. For now, I just want you to know that I saw them–and did nothing.

The right direction is the one my friend Brian Bollmann took. Brian hooked up with the Center for Self-Governance. He didn’t just scream and yell at politicians. He learned how to talk to politicians. And now, they call him and ask how they should vote.

Brian got some power back.

When a handful of people get some power back, you don’t need 10,000 people yelling in a park. You don’t. Sure, we needed 10,000 angry people in Kiener Plaza in 2009. It was a recruitment drive. We had to tell the thousands like us, “you’re not alone. It’s safe to come out now.”

When a handful of Brian Bollmanns get some power back, you don’t need to shout about Agenda 21. Instead, you quietly inform poor people in public housing that Smart Meters will raise their electric bills to $120 a month from $25. That’s what Self-Governance students in Memphis did, and Memphis Power and Light removed the Smart Meters.

When a handful of Brian Bollmanns get some power back, you don’t even think about cloistering yourself in an ideologically safe vacuum and pleasure yourself with the vibrating echo. You talk to people who never heard of Thomas Paine about how they’re going to pay off their student loans.

I know it pisses off some good people every time I say I like Ann Wagner. I do. I enjoy talking to her, and I admire the things she’s accomplished. I can’t imagine myself yelling at her, and I know it would hurt our cause if I did. I’d like her to fight against extending the Export-Import Bank because the Export-Import Bank represents a redistribution of wealth and puts the government in the position of protecting large corporations from the free market. In short, the Ex-Im Bank is a clearinghouse of crony capitalism.

I know Ann and many of her Republican colleagues in Congress believe in the free market. But the free market doesn’t have a lobby. Except us. Except me.

So what happened to the Tea Party? I hope it got a lot friendlier and a lot more effective. Maybe now we can stop trying to topple big name “Republicrats” and start using our power of persuasion and influence to get Republicans to vote the way they talk.


Author: William Hennessy

Co-founder of St. Louis Tea Party Coalition and Nationwide Chicago Tea Party Persuasive design expertLatest book: Turning On Trump: An Evolution (2016)Author of The Conservative Manifest (1993), Zen Conservatism (2009), Weaving the Roots (2011), and Fight to Evolve (2016)I believe every person deserves the dignity of meaningful work as the only path to human flourishing.

12 Comments on “What Happened to the Tea Party?

  1. But surely that view of the contributions of the Tea Party is too harsh. When people ask me why I think Obama has done a credible job, I always start out noting that he kept us from slipping into a depression, and that alone qualifies him as credible. When the Tea Party came into being, there was a part of our population that was looking forward to a return to robust, expansive government. I do think government needs to be more effective, but expansiveness makes me very nervous. Maybe this will eventually be viewed as a contribution of the Tea Party – it might not have made anything better, but it kept things from getting worse. And maybe the brake that it put on the current conversation will eventually lead to a new, more honest conversation about the proper role for government in a democratic society.

    And a very large contribution of the Tea Party has been Ron Paul. I’m not a Libertarian, but Ron Paul did our country a favor by again introducing the idea that there needs to be limits to the security state. We cherish our freedom and our security. There is no easy answer as to how to balance the two, but Ron Paul has again highlighted the potential of even a democratic government to overstep the boundaries, to begin doing things in the name of security which come at the cost of freedom. Ron Paul would not have been possible without the Tea Party movement.

    And finally, as Bill points out, the Tea Party has helped energize a part of our population that was before apolitical. The anger of these newly energized voters was occasionally uncomfortable, and I’m still not sure they have focused their anger on what actually made them mad. But we are a democracy, and a democracy always benefits from broader participation.

    This, probably, will be the Tea Party’s long term contribution – it turned millions of disinterested Americans into passionate voters. Yes, as I add it all up, the Tea Party has been good for our country and our democracy.

  2. I know it has to be have been a frustrating election cycle for the Tea Party, and there is a natural human desire to something good in bad news. But if the Tea Party went away today I’m having a hard time understanding exactly how it would have made a difference in our government. The situation that I think sparked the anger that lead to the Tea Party, the bank bailout. But none of the intertwining between big government big finance that led to the bailout has been undone. Financial institutions are still free to sell trillions of dollars worth of derivatives to each other, exactly like the ones that caused the need to bail out AIG. Unregulated Hedge Funds are still free to borrow billions of dollars from the regulated economy to gamble on derivatives. Government spending is still far higher than it was when George W. Bush became president. What has actually changed? How is our country on a different path?

    To my mind, at the root of this ineffectiveness was a very basic misunderstanding of the role of government – most of these bad things happened not because of too much government regulation, but rather because of too little. The idea of insurable interest, that you can’t buy insurance on something you don’t own, goes back to English Common Law. And yet we abandoned it – derivatives are insurance policies. The idea that we should limit the amount of money financial institutions borrow goes back to the 1930s, and did a great job in reducing risk. We abandoned it. This is the paradox of the Tea Party – most of the things that made it the maddest happened because we lessened regulation, not because of too much regulation.

    And somewhere deeper, there was a misunderstanding of the intersection of the government and the free market. Somewhere Tea Parties came to the conclusion that a free market can only happen absent a role for government. But the economic reality is just the opposite – a free market, especially at the national level, can only exist through the power of the federal government. A federal government that makes sure that every individual has access to a safe banking system, and that the natural tendency of monopolies to develop is curtailed. A federal government that takes seriously its obligation to insure that all men and women have an equal opportunity to participate in our capitalist system.

    It’s hard to know where the Tea Party will go from here. A movement that began with a very justified anger at the direction of our country didn’t really change the direction of our country. Instead its anger was coopted by the very interests it claimed to be against; the Tea Party, at the end of the day, was used to protect the very interests that are undermining our country.

    1. Blake,

      Thank you for a very intelligent reply. Much appreciated.
      I’m going to focus on two aspects of one paragraph. I might write more on other parts of your excellent comment later, but I want to focus on this statement now:

      To my mind, at the root of this ineffectiveness was a very basic misunderstanding of the role of government – most of these bad things happened not because of too much government regulation, but rather because of too little. The idea of insurable interest, that you can’t buy insurance on something you don’t own, goes back to English Common Law. And yet we abandoned it – derivatives are insurance policies.

      In reverse order, you are absolutely right about the derivatives, and you might be the first thinker who’s raised this objection. Derivatives are insurance policies on someone else’s property. And it’s similar to another underlying problem with big banks: publicly traded investment banks. In the old days (pre-1980s), investment houses were partnerships. The partners assumed the risk of the firm. But Solomon Brothers (I think) broke that hymen. It went IPO and transferred risk, essentially, to its customers. All the other investment houses followed. And that risk eventually went to the tax payers.

      When we dilute risk, we make risk less risky. The big banks know they can take any chance and the public will absorb the losses while the firm sucks up all the gains. As Darren Pang would say, “why wouldn’t we?”

      But back to the first half of you comment on understanding of government. I don’t believe that the crisis resulted from too little government, but from mal-government. Regulators aren’t the answer; better laws are.

      First, The Glass-Stegall Act should never have been repealed or sunset or whatever was done to it. That act prohibited investment banks from getting into retail banking, and vice versa. Second, investment banks should be prohibited from going public. The partners should hold the risk.

      Those two reforms might not have prevented what happened in the 00s, but I they would have mitigated the effect and protected the public.

      What say you?

      1. So this is what is so baffling about the Tea Party for me… You have this very nuanced view of financial regulation, Glass-Stegall (yes I agree) and even touched on the socializing of risk. As you noted in a previous communication, the Tea Party anger is directed as much at the intersection of big government and big business. But I do not recall ever hearing anything from the Tea Party about any of this.

        In two very fundamental ways, our government has tilted the playing field in the direction of the very wealthy: they pay a lower tax rate than the middle class, and they are able to make much more leveraged investments and so realize a higher rate of return.

        When Reagan came into office capital gains tax rates were higher than earned income tax rates. He commented that we shouldn’t penalize capital. Now we have the opposite situation – we penalize labor, the earned income of the people working for a living.

        And whereas most people in the middle class only have access to investment opportunities in the regulated economy (where the amount of leverage is limited by government oversight), the very wealth are able to invest in unregulated hedge funds that can borrow 30 times their invested capital (I believe banks are capped at 10 times).

        The decision not to regulate hedge funds was made in the fifties. Regulators assumed that if the very wealthy wanted to take risks outside of the regulated financial system they were sophisticated enough to take the risks. But of course hedge funds have become part of the regulated economy – they borrow vast sums of money from it to buy and sell stocks, bonds, oil futures and derivatives of the regulated economy. And when the insurer of record for many of those derivatives – AIG – wasn’t able to pay, taxpayers stepped in to make the hedge funds whole, just as we do with the regulated economy.

        Bill, if I had to guess, everything I have written would resonate with Tea Partiers, and I agree that their frustration with the state of the union is justified. But I cannot for the life of me every remember one story or newsclip of the Tea Party talking about any of these issues. All of this justified anger, but seemingly not focused on what actually made them the maddest.

  3. Bill,

    Overall I think the TP movement was co opted by the established GOP. Email after email from an ever growing number of “Conservative” lookie lou’s found their way into my email. (Some because I joined). But the message always seemed the same . . . the sky is falling . . . send money. And the results were always the same . . . more loss of individual liberty legislation . . . and another candidate that couldn’t carry water.

    Couple that with a “main stream” media that exaggerated every flawed action by anyone claiming to be a tea party proponent and the middle of the road voter who was sticking their toe in the water for the first time fled the cause. Too bad for the cause!

    So is the new plan going to work? Not if the voter turnout is 5% for the primary, Of that 5% only a handful will probably be willing to interact with an elected official. Too bad again.

    Maybe the Republican Townships should wake up and formulate a plan . . . just sayin!


    1. Doug,

      One thing the Center for Self-Governance stresses is the need to get above election politics. That’s they’re game. It’s the Goliath strategy. To win back power, we need to use David tactics.

      A great book on the subject is Malcolm Gladwell’s How David Beats Goliath.http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/05/11/090511fa_fact_gladwell?currentPage=all

      I don’t want to slam groups like Tea Party Patriots and FreedomWorks, but they tried to play Goliath’s game on a shoe string budget with unseasoned candidates who had inexperienced staffers using 1980s technology and invalid ideas about influence and persuasion. That tactic was doomed from the start.

      1. Bill,

        One of the stories I remember being told early on at my Catholic school was David and Goliath. Guess I bought into it? Maybe they’re not telling it anymore?

        Hooray for the Center for Self-Governance. How many voters know they exist. What positive impact have they made in the last six months that would get me excited about them? Do we now have an army of Davids?

        That would be great news to share!


        1. In Memphis, the Center for Self-Governance turned a life-long NAACP member and Memphis Alderman into a sponsor of Memphis Tea Party legislation. They also motivated residents of an all African-American housing project to fight Smart Meters. That’s remarkable.

          They’re teaching classes all across the country. They started in Tennessee, so that’s where they’ve seen the most success, but Brian Bollman in Cape Girardeau has done some amazing things, too. He’s an instructor.

          In the St. Louis Area, Dr. Helen Gelhot is the champion of the CSG. I can introduce if you’d like.

          Yes, CSG is, in my opinion, the last best hope for the republic.

          Check this out: http://youtu.be/MAUxYPf1AjM

  4. I agree with you on all the comments EXCEPT the statement that you like Ann Wagner. There is nothing to like. She does not care about her constituents or her district. She is a power hungry Washington insider who will do anything it takes (including voting with the Democrats) to become the first Republican woman Speaker of the House. Her voting record speaks for itself (dismal).

    1. I knew I could get a comment from you Ellen. :-) Great to hear from you.

      You’re right. Ms. Wagner’s Heritage Action score is down to 62%. While that’s the same as the House GOP average, it’s way too low for her district. Her predecessor was consistently over 80%, and he won re-election handily. Ms. Wagner risks alienating her district with her votes.

      But I still like Ann personally. We get along. I think if I did a better job as a free-markets lobbyist, Ann’s HA score would improve. Blame me for that.

      Finally, Ann has a lot of influence in the House Republican caucus. And she’s going to be there awhile. I think our best strategy is to give her the ammunition she needs to vote for free markets when free-market interests collide with Chamber of Commerce interests.

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