The Tea Party: A Brief History

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JHU Press, May 15, 2012 - History - 143 pages

The Tea Party burst on the national political scene in 2009–2010, powered by right-wing grassroots passion and Astroturf big money. Its effect on electoral politics and the political process is undeniable, but the message, aims, and staying power of the loosely organized groups seem less clear. In this concise book, American political historian Ronald P. Formisano probes the remarkable rise of the Tea Party movement during a time of economic crisis and cultural change and examines its powerful impact on American politics.

A confederation of intersecting and overlapping organizations, with a strong connection to the Christian fundamentalist Right, the phenomenon could easily be called the Tea Parties. The American media’s fascination with the Tea Party—and the tendency of political leaders who have embraced the movement to say and do outlandish things—not only has fueled the fire driving the movement, but has diverted attention from its roots, agenda, and the enormous influence it holds over the Republican Party and the American political agenda. Looking at the Tea Party's claims to historical precedent and patriotic values, Formisano locates its anti-state and libertarian impulses deep in American political culture as well as in voter frustrations that have boiled over in recent decades. He sorts through the disparate goals the movement’s different factions espouse and shows that, ultimately, the contradictions of Tea Party libertarianism reflect those ingrained in the broad mass of the electorate.

Throughout American history, third parties, pressure groups, and social movements have emerged to demand reforms or radical change, only to eventually fade away, even if parts of their programs often are later adopted. The Tea Party’s impact as a pressure group has been more immediate. Whether the Tea Party endures remains to be seen. Formisano’s brief history certainly gives us clues.


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Q. How did you like the book? A. Well, it was short. I think Ronald did a commendable job describing the Tea Party and its predecessors in the United States. This is really more of a sociology than a history, I would say, but it has obvious political overtones also. Ronald does not have enough space to get too deeply into any particular facet of the Tea Party or any particular individuals. Everything is therefore a kind of skating along, dropping a name here, a name there. Q. Is that a problem for the reader? A. The reader should probably expect this. I mean, people can and do write on politics in huge tomes. Ronald has spared the reader that, at the price of depth, but that is fine with me. I agreed with everything he wrote. But I did note that he had little positive to say about the Tea Party people. If you are a Tea Party type, you have to be real even tempered if you are going to read this book. Otherwise, forget it.  


1 Reading Tea Leaves
2 The Rise of the Tea Party
3 Political Payoff in the 2010 Midterm Elections
4 The Tea Party and the Religious Right
5 The Tea Party and Big Business
6 Frustration with Politics as Usual
7 The Tea Party and American Political Culture
Postscript The First Tea Party

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About the author (2012)

Ronald P. Formisano is the William T. Bryan Chair of American History at the University of Kentucky. His most recent book is For the People: American Populist Movements from the Revolution to the 1850s.