The following is excerpted from E.J. Dionne’s new book, Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle For The American Idea In An Age Of Discontent. You can purchase it here.
At its heart, the Tea Party consisted of nothing more (or less) than conservative Republicans who had opposed Barack Obama in 2008 and were angry that he was pursuing the policies he’d run on. Many were also upset over the failures of the Bush presidency and their sense that Bush had been a “big spender,” which was certainly true when it came to Iraq.
Astute marketing, not philosophical innovation, is what set the Tea Party apart. It was conservative Republicanism with a sharper tilt rightward. It enjoyed the additional advantages of its own television network in Fox News, a nationwide troupe of talk radio hosts, a considerable bankroll—its most famous angels being the wealthy Koch brothers—and the energies of Sarah Palin, whom every segment of the media could not get enough of in the years 2009 and 2010, before she began to fade.
A New York Times/CBS News survey in April 2010 was especially helpful in debunking the idea that the Tea Party was a bold new populist movement. The Times reported that Tea Party supporters accounted for about a fifth of the country and tended to be “Republican, white, male, married and older than 45.” It was hard to find a better description of the GOP base. They were also more affluent and better educated than Americans as a whole. If this was populism, it was the populism of the privileged, or at least the comfortable.
The Tea Party was in many ways a throwback movement—to the 1930s and also to the 1950s and early 1960s. Like the right wing in those earlier years, it saw most of the domestic policies the federal government had undertaken since the Progressive Era and the New Deal as unconstitutional. Like its forebears, the Tea Party typically perceived the most dangerous threats to freedom as coming not from abroad but from the designs of well-educated elitists out of touch with “American values.”
The language of these Obama-era anti-statists, like the language of the 1950s right, regularly invoked the Founders by way of describing the threats to liberty presented by socialists disguised as liberals. A group called Tea Party Patriots (many Tea Party groups donned the colors of patriotism) described itself as “a community committed to standing together, shoulder to shoulder, to protect our country and the Constitution upon which we were founded!” Tea Party Nation called itself “a user-driven group of like-minded people who desire our God-given individual freedoms written out by the Founding Fathers.”