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Origins of the Tea Party

Updated: Apr 21, 2021

Dominique Wright (2017)


The Tea Party is an American social movement that is opposed to government spending, taxation, and regulation. The Tea Party is one of the most important of the right-wing protest movements of the 21st century. Although on the surface its origins are hard to pin down, extensive research has provided a pathway to narrow down the formation and structure of the movement. Members of the Tea Party identify themselves as white middle-aged, middle class Americans that are tired of seeing their government waste their tax money on things they felt weren’t personally beneficial to them. They participated in protests, captivated the public eye by making sensational claims and seemed to have enough power to influence and elect congressional figures on the surface. However the Tea Party wasn’t all that it was glorified to be.

Emergence of the Tea Party

Painting of the 1773 Boston Tea Party (source: Wikipedia)
Painting of the 1773 Boston Tea Party (source: Wikipedia)

The Tea Party’s organizational name was inspired by the Boston Tea Party, a historic political protest that opposed the British Parliament’s tax on tea in its American colonies. During the Boston Tea Party, protesters boarded ships carrying chests of tea, and threw over 92,000 pounds of tea into the Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773 [1]. According to the Tea Party’s official website, although many people claim to be the founders of the grassroots organization, the real founders are “the brave souls of the men and women in 1773, known today as the Boston Tea Party, who dared to defy the greatest military might on earth” [2].

Their official website provides no information regarding who formed the Tea Party and when the Tea Party movement was formed. The only indication of the movement’s formation was the reference to when their website was formed on September 2, 2004. However, scholars and social movement experts have come up with countless origins for the Tea Party. From my understanding, the origin of the Tea Party sparked from concerns with the 2008 financial crisis. Following the outbreak of the crisis, the incoming Obama Administration felt obligated to push numerous policies to help those that were being affected by the crisis. The policies created were specifically geared towards funding more money into public resources to stabilize the U.S. economy[3]. Leading up to the housing bubble and prior to the financial crisis, renters were becoming poorer and the amount of affordable housing was shrinking. As this was happening people that would typically rent homes were now allowed to buy homes despite the fact that they were high-risk borrowers. Lenders were targeting high-risk borrowers so they could charge them high interest rates so that they could receive a high return on their investment when they then sold the loan to other financial institutions even though the original borrowers were not be able to pay off their mortgages. This practice went unchecked for so long because it became too difficult to track where money was coming from. After a lender would loan money to a borrower they would sell it to someone else and the funds would become so dispersed, no one could be held accountable for the loans. The government then made Government Sponsored Enterprises (GSE’s) more valuable when they began buying most mortgages from banks in hopes of securitizing them and bundling them. However instead these GSE’s made lending more risky because banks knew the mortgages they gave out would be backed up by GSE’s. For a while everything was going as planned but an overwhelming epidemic of underwater mortgages ultimately developed. Homeowners began to go into foreclosure because, as the banks expected, the high-risk borrowers were not able to pay off their mortgages. The high foreclosure rates had negative effects on communities because it lowered property values, increased crime, and increased municipal government costs.

Rick Santelli, CNBC On-Air Editor (source: CNBC)
Rick Santelli, CNBC On-Air Editor (source: CNBC)

Following the rise of this crisis, on February 24, 2009 Rick Santelli's rant on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange sparked interest in what he called a Chicago Tea Party to protest government intervention [4]. During this rant he expressed his dissatisfaction with Obama’s Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan, a homeowner bailout stimulus package that was created to help release the high cost burdens that caused so many American homes to be foreclosed [5].

This package, he stated, “is helping promote bad behavior.” In other words, the Obama administration's policy that is designed to help people avoid foreclosure will encourage more people to buy homes they cannot afford because they know the government will help them out of debt. “This is America!” he shouted. “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” The traders surrounding him wailed with discontent [6]. Rick Santelli’s rant made it onto the morning news where it was an instant media hit, and was talked about all over the country. Shortly after Rick Santelli gave the movement a name, chapters for the Tea Party started popping up throughout the country. In a study by Jeffrey M. Berry, of the Political Science Department at Tufts University, of the 95 chapters he was able to have a decent dialogue with, most groups were created in 2009. In subsequent years, only a few more were created, up to 2011. In contrast, The Washington Post found about 1400 Tea Party groups [7], but Santelli's speech was not the only thing that brought fuel to the fire. The media also played a big role advancing the Tea Party’s assertions. The media’s constant coverage of Tea Party activities, protests, and commitments gave the movement legitimacy and their members loved it. In a survey from The Washington Post, seventy-six percent of Tea Party organizers said that coverage of their groups was either very fair or somewhat fair, while only 8% said that coverage was very unfair [8]. People that otherwise would not have heard about the movement were now interested in what the movement was doing.

Organizational Structure

Anna Kroyman, Tea Party chapter founder (source: NBC News)
Anna Kroyman, Tea Party chapter founder (source: NBC News)

On the grass-roots level, most participants found their support on online websites where they would talk about creating new chapters, schedule meet-ups and ask for advice and assistance. In a telephone interview, Anna Kroyman states that it was easy to begin a new chapter. Tea Party Patriots–a support group that volunteer groups registered with to receive news and updates, sign petitions and support one another– encouraged Kroyman not to give up and to immediately hold a meeting despite the number of followers she had and shortly after, she became a founder of a group in her community [9].

Just like Kroyman, many other chapters and groups were volunteer-based as well. They were not

Images like this one of massive crowds shaped public perception of volunteer-based power (source: Christian Science Monitor)
Images like this one of massive crowds shaped public perception of volunteer-based power (source: Christian Science Monitor)

paid, and in one study, a chapter that wasn't entirely run by volunteers was unheard of [10]. The people at these chapters were undoubtedly there to support the cause of the organization and they were moved to do anything possible to advance the Tea Party’s goals. It takes a certain type of person to change their lifelong routines because they feel obligated to make a difference in politics. The volunteers wanted change but the organizational structure of the Tea Party did not necessarily let the volunteers be the main manipulators of that change; the media certainly made them seem more active than what they actually were.

In a months-long investigation by The Washington Post many of the tea party groups were not active in the political process. 70% of the grass-roots groups stated that they were not involved in any political campaigning in the year 2010 [11]. Yet, 2010 was supposed to be one of the most important years for the movement because they were gaining the most traction. Needless to say, if the movement was truly as organized by the people as they claimed it was, they needed a lot more people to participate in the political process to have the political gains they needed. A New York Times Report found 138 Tea Party Congressional Candidates with strong Tea Party support [12]. Moreover, the 30% of Tea Party groups that said they were involved in the political campaigning process doesn’t even take into account what extent these groups were preoccupied by these political processes. Something as little as calling your senator or raising a couple of dollars to donate to someone's campaign can be included in this percentage. The media put the Tea Party’s grievances on the front line. They gave their concerns the time of day on the national stage, something the movement would not have been able to do without the media. The media’s constant coverage of the Tea Party gave the movement legitimacy and notability.

The media’s coverage made people want to find out what the Tea Party was doing and it gave the Tea Party importance. Importance was key to this movement because as you will see later, the attention given to the movement would later get many people elected and shift modern day politics. Proof, however, exists that some of the events that were supposedly organized by the Tea Party were in fact organized by other organizations, which in turn made these gatherings AstroTurf events, or in other words: fake grass roots events. The idea is that they are making the event look like its been organized by the people and that they are public demands, but in reality they are events that are organized and funded typically by well-established organizations, or even big corporations.

Freedomworks, a conservative action group; dontGO, a free market group; and Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group

The Koch Brothers, infamous financial backers of far-right American parties and policies  (source: Nation of Change)
The Koch Brothers, infamous financial backers of far-right American parties and policies (source: Nation of Change)

based on free market principles, are the three major players that gave the movement traction [13]. Jane Mayer, a journalist for the New York Times was able to find in her well documented book Dark Money, evidence that the Koch brothers, pro-business billionaires that are credited for the rise of the political right by buying people off, donated millions of dollars to Freedomworks, the same company that has admitted to helping out the Tea Party. “Americans for Prosperity”, an advocacy group that, like FreedomWorks, was a spin-off of the 1980s free-market industry-funded think tank Citizens for a Sound Economy, Newt Gingrich’s American Solutions for Winning the Future, and the American Liberty Alliance, an organization run by the conservative campaign veteran Eric Odom [14].

Most groups apparently signed up with Tea Party Patriots– the assistance group that told people like Anna Kroyman how to create her own Tea Party group. Leaked emails obtained by TPMmuckraker reveal that Freedomworks gained significant control over Tea Party Patriots messaging early on [15]. The Tea Party volunteers would perform orchestrated scenes that were seemingly organic when they were actually instructed to do so by the large corporations that were making the real decisions. At town hall meetings during Obama’s push for the ACA (Affordable Care Act), memos signed by corporate lobbyists on the political right were leaked, and in it were instructions to disrupt and startle members of congress who were suspected supporters of healthcare reform. “Pack the hall,” “Stand up and shout and sit right back down” [16]. These instructions were just a few of the many in the 3 page memorandum. Moreover, the author, Robert MacGuffie, confirmed to the New York Times that the article was legitimate and oddly enough, MacGuffie is also an official of Freedomworks, the same conservative action group that has been deemed responsible along with other action groups for the founding of the Tea Party [17]. Consequently we cannot help but question how the Tea Party’s ensemble of performances is organic when leaders of other organizations are instructing their members how to behave. The Tea Party cannot be a grassroots organization and at the same time take direction from one of the top conservative lobbyist groups in the nation. The Tea Party Movement was interesting because although their grievances had conservative influences, they were not operating under traditional GOP institutions. Volunteers, the media and wealthy donors were key to the movements organizational structure. Within its chapters it's hard to determine who the leaders are, and, as far as we can tell, no national change was advanced by the local chapters, but their chapters played an essential role because they made the movement look authentic. The media was also undoubtedly a major part of the organizational structure because the Tea Party depended on them to bring to light their issues with the establishment. Lastly, their extremely rich donors assured that the Tea Party became one of the most powerful force in the world of American politics. These three factors in organizational structure played a crucial role in American politics at this time.

Rise to Prominence

While 2009 was an important year for for the movement because it is when it first gained traction, 2010 was an even better year because this is the year the Tea Party was credited for electing its first Congressmen and women. “2010 would be the the largest class of newcomers to Congress” in over half a century all thanks to the Tea Party [18]. These freshmen representatives promised to reform America’s tax code, to repeal the Affordable Care Act and to stop assisting people who were responsible for their own financial crises. All 87 of them were the start of a new political era. Scott Brown’s surprising win over Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts was a huge win for the Tea Party. This specific seat, which was a democratic stronghold for nearly half a century, was now in the hands of a new political movement that was only just beginning [19]. Tea Party Express, a political action committee that strives to endorse and quickly get their candidates elected in congress, donated nearly $350,000 to Brown’s campaign [20]. The New York Times, CBS News, CNN, Fox News and countless other major new outlets all covered this special election victory because it was game-changing. According to the New York Times, Brown’s surge caught Democrats completely by surprise and left them scrambling a week before the election to gain more support [21].

Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ted Cruz (R-TX)  (source: The National Discourse)
Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) (source: The National Discourse)

Two other shocking election wins in 2010 were when both Rand Paul and Ted Cruz won two seats in Congress. These candidates also had strong support from the Tea Party and left the GOP establishment puzzled. Both candidates would later hold hour long filibusters to pushback on the Obama administration's agenda. 2010 was also the year that the Tea Party’s first National convention was held. Their key speaker was Sarah Palin, the vice presidential nominee for John McCain in the 2008 presidential election. Her presence brought even more credibility to the movement because she helped them have household names promoting the movement.

According to Charles Tilly and Lesley Wood, two social scientists that have helped researchers understand the continued existence of social movements in general, there are 3 key elements that are absolutely necessary for the survival of such movements [22]:

  1. Repertoire: The first element is repertoire, or in other words the, the creation of special assertions, public meetings and rallies. Repertoire is an ensemble of performances that generate activity and in the case of the Tea Party movement, this was the notable protests they had across the country, the convention where they had Sarah Palin speak and the planned outbursts they had at town halls for the Affordable Care Act. These public performances gave them a chance to step into the public arena and force people to hear their message.

  2. Clear Messaging: The second key element is to have a campaign. The Tea Party had a clear message, they were against government spending, they wanted more tax breaks and they wanted less government interference in citizens’ everyday life. These claims proved to be powerful for the Tea Party because people liked their message and they had many volunteers advocating for them.

  3. Worthiness, Unity, Numbers and Commitment (WUNC): Last but not least, the final element necessary for the survival of a social movement was WUNC, which stood for worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment. The media gave the Tea Party worthiness because they constantly displayed the Tea Party’s performances and protests. Their conveyance of these matters showed the absolute concern volunteers had for this movement. As for unity, numbers and commitment, the general public was able to constantly see broadcasting of the Tea Party’s seemingly endless protests and how volunteers never gave up and stuck together to have their grievances heard.

What's happening today?

Like any other social movements the Tea Party movement fizzled out. The issues they based the movement upon are no longer dominating media programming. New tax codes were created, government spending relaxed and many programs that assisted those in need of subsidies were underfunded. The goals people originally joined the movement for are no longer of major concern.[23] As one study found, chapter birth dates quickly spiked in 2009 and steeply decreased in the next few years after that. While the Tea Party does still exist, it isn't making anywhere near the progress it was making nearly a decade ago.[24] Now, most of the elected officials that were brought into office due to Tea Party support have now either been voted out of office or chose not to run for office again. Moreover, since most of the Tea Party’s concerns derived directly from opposition to the Obama Administration and its policies, the movement is struggling to find its new message now that Obama is out of office.

This chart shows the Tea Party's falling favorability amongst Americans of all political affiliations (source: The Washington Post with data from Pew Research Center)
This chart shows the Tea Party's falling favorability amongst Americans of all political affiliations (source: The Washington Post with data from Pew Research Center)

Today they are calling for President Trump’s support but you cannot have a movement that only exists to support someone. It is destined to fail if that is the only goal. As Snow and Soule, two social movement experts states, social movements have temporal continuity [25]. The movement has to be against something, some system or some person so it can have purpose and have its members excited about supporting it.

Today they are calling for President Trump’s support but you cannot have a movement that only exists to support someone. It is destined to fail if that is the only goal. As Snow and Soule, two social movement experts states, social movements have temporal continuity [25]. The movement has to be against something, some system or some person so it can have purpose and have its members excited about supporting it.


The Tea Party movement was by far one of the most game changing political movements of the 21st century. While the movement seemed to be and claimed to be a grassroots movement my analysis demonstrates otherwise. Leaks, investigations and the questionable outcomes of elections that cannot be explained by the Tea Party’s “volunteer work,” all prove that this movement originated by well-funded people and organizations. Many of which were conservative lobbyists that were able to transform their interests into interests the many volunteers that sympathized with the movement, could support also.



[1]Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, “The Destruction of the Tea” The Boston Tea Party,” n.d., 2018 Historic Tours of America [2]Tea Party “About Us,” n.d., Tea Party, Inc[3] Madestam, Andreas, Daniel Shoag, Stan Veuger, and David Yanagizawa-Drott. 2013. "Do Political Protests Matter? Evidence from the Tea Party Movement*." Quarterly Journal Of Economics128, no. 4: 1633-1685. Business Source Elite, EBSCOhost (accessed August 6, 2018).[4] Andrew Kirell, “When CNBC Created the Tea Party,” The Daily Beast, October 30, 2015,[5] Ibid. [6] Ibid. [7]Amy Gardner, “Tea party groups say media have been fair, survey finds,” The Washingston Post, October 26, 2010,[8] Ibid.[9] Tina Fetner and Brayden G. King, “Chapter 3: Three-Layer Movements, Resources, and the Tea Party,”[10] Jeffrey M. Berry, “Tea Party Decline,” Tufts University, August, 2017,[11]Amy Gardner, “Tea party groups say media have been fair, survey finds,” The Washingston Post, October 26, 2010,[12] Kate Zernike, “Tea Party Set to Win Enough Races for Wide Influence,” The New York Times, October 14, 2010, [13]Chris Good, “The Tea Party Movement: Who's In Charge?” The Atlantic, April 13, 2009[14]Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin, “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” Perspectives on Politics 9, no. 1, (2011): 25-43[15] Zachary Roth, “FreedomWorks Says Jump, “Tea Partiers Ask How High,” Talking Points Memo, August 11, 2009[16] Ian Urbina, “Beyond Beltway, Health Debate Turns Hostile,” The New York Times, August 7, 2009,[17]History Commons, “Profile: Bob MacGuffie,” History Commons, n.d.,[18] Russell Berman, “The Class of 2010 Heads Home,” The Atlantic, February 22, 2016,[19]Michael Cooper, “G.O.P. Senate Victory Stuns Democrats,” The New York Times, January 19, 2010,[20]Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin, “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” Perspectives on Politics 9, no. 1, (2011): 25-43[21] Michael Cooper, “G.O.P. Senate Victory Stuns Democrats,” The New York Times, January 19, 2010,[22]Charles Tilly, Lesley Wood, Social Movements 1768-2012, London and New York, Taylor & Francis, 2012, Edition 3. [23] Luther Gerlach “The Structure of Social Movements: Environmental Activism and Its Components,” 1999 [24] Jeffrey M. Berry, “Tea Party Decline,” Tufts University, August, 2017,[25] David Snow, Sarah Soule, “A Primer on Social Movements,” New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2009


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