It's Time to Brew: the Tea Party Needs to Come Alive

Academics and pundits have many criticisms of the Tea Party, e.g., its members are racists, sexists, homophobes, etc. These are unfounded claims, but there is one criticism that is true and it is holding this movement back: the Tea Party is disorganized and lacks sophistication and cohesion. This lack of organization has benefitted the Tea Party in some ways, but the time has come for this passionate but underdeveloped movement to reach its full potential. The Tea Party's goal for the new year should be to once again become a visible and vocal actor in American politics.

Claiming that the Tea Party needs to ramp things up again is not to say that the movement hasn't accomplished anything in the last few years. It does, however, mean that the Tea Party needs to return to its origins as a protest movement that exerts pressure on establishment politicians. The movement has had an influence at the ballot box, taking the House away from Democrats in 2010 and the Senate in 2014. However, electioneering has become the main, if not only, function of the movement. Instead of switching back and forth from protest to electioneering mode, the Tea Party needs to become a multi-faceted movement that constantly and relentlessly attacks its opponents from all angles. In the HBO miniseries "The Pacific", a character named Snafu gives advice that the Tea Party should follow. As Tea Partiers begin to undo Progressives' agenda -- something that has been in the works for a century -- their opponents will get even nastier, as difficult as that is to imagine.  To combat this, Tea Partiers need to be willing to fight.

Although the Tea Party is still a recognizable entity in American politics, it has begun to lose its identity as a vibrant, independent actor. Because of the constant attacks on the movement -- from both Democrats, Republicans, and the IRS -- actual membership and activity by Tea Party groups has dwindled. Now, however, there are three things that should motivate individuals to revamp this movement: payback for the aforementioned IRS targeting scandal, conservatives now have a larger voice in Congress, and the 2016 presidential election is right around the corner. 

Perhaps Tea Partiers have become disheartened, but the reality of politics is that it is a numbers game -- and the numbers work in Tea Partiers' favor. According to Gallup, 38% of Americans self identify as conservative while only 23% self identify as liberal. This gap has tightened in the last couple of years, but it is still huge. Furthermore, since 2009, support for the Tea Party has fluctuated between 20 and 30%. This fact is especially impressive considering the movement has faced constant headwinds since its inception. Think about it: even with this recent spike in liberal identification, that ideological faction that seems to have the loudest voice is no bigger than the Tea Party. Moreover, rarely do more than 30% of Americans identify as being Republican.  Even assuming that no Republicans support the Tea Party (which is not the case), the movement is as large as the party's base.

To regain its influence, local Tea Party groups and "umbrella" groups like Tea Party Patriots and Tea Party Express need to reconnect and start to build a more formal organizational infrastructure. Furthermore, there needs to be a more proactive push in three areas: messaging that clearly identifies what the Tea Party is and what it wants; a proactive recruitment program; and a fundraising push that will allow its candidates to overcome disadvantages in primary and general elections. Fundraising is particularly important because it will help accomplish the first two goals.

To prove my argument that the Tea Party needs to return to its roots, let's go back to the beginning and see the impact that this movement had. The Tea Party quickly became a political force in 2009 and built momentum during Congress's August recess that year. It helped get Chris Christie elected (for whatever good that has done the conservative cause), helped Scott Brown steal Ted Kennedy's seat, and nearly stopped the passage of ObamaCare. Despite huge Democrat majorities in both the House and Senate, it took payoffs to keep Democrat caucuses together: Gatoraid, the Cornhusker Kickback, and the Louisiana Purchase were all needed to break the Republican filibuster; the Senate bill passed by a razor-slim margin in the House.  

So why were Democrats so hesitant to pass ObamaCare? It is because the Tea Party pressured politicians in both parties, particularly Red State Democrats. For example, of the 60 Democrat Senators who voted to pass Obamacare, only 30 will serve in the upcoming Congress. In addition to having a formidable majority in the Senate, the GOP will have its largest majority in the House since before WWII. The Tea Party has had a lot to do with this, but the movement cannot rest on its laurels. It needs to continue its push to purge the GOP congressional caucuses of squishy, go-along-to-get-along establishment types. This should begin with the removal of John Boehner as speaker, but it cannot end there. Republican politicians need to know that if they act like Democrats, they will be replaced.

Perhaps the most profound effect the Tea Party could have is to pressure their state legislatures into participating in an Article V Constitutional convention -- an idea originally hatched by conservative author and radio host Mark Levin. In his book, The Liberty Amendments, Levin writes that states should reclaim their authority by convening and writing and passing amendments to the Constitution. This would circumvent federal gridlock and bring real changes that are so vital if our republic is to survive and succeed. The Tea Party is the best vehicle to bring this type of convention about because it has the size (despite what critics say) and it has the energy.

In sum, the Tea Party has the potential to become the political savior of this country. To accomplish this, however, the movement needs to revamp and revitalize by returning to its origins as a political protest movement. Most of all, however it needs to become a relentless force for good by becoming mean, just like Snafu said. 

Layne Hansen is a Ph.D. student in political science.