Political Science The Tea Party
Theda Skocpol, Vanessa Williamson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0096


The Tea Party is a loosely coordinated right-wing political upsurge that began in the first weeks of the administration of President Barack Obama. Tea Party symbolism was adopted by three intersecting conservative political forces: grassroots activists, right-wing media, and ultra-free-market advocacy and funding organizations supported by wealthy and corporate interests. Under the banner of the Tea Party, these three forces protested Obama administration priorities, reshaped public debates, and pushed the Republican Party farther to the right. In early 2009, conservative media helped scattered grassroots conservatives rapidly create a dramatic identity, share information, and build a sense of momentum for their new “Tea Party” protests. These protestors soon began to organize what became about one thousand local groups. These activists—conservatives at the rightward edge of the Republican Party—tend to be older, white, and slightly better educated and economically more comfortable than other Americans. Many are social conservatives, but a sizable minority describe themselves as libertarian and are more secular in orientation. Like many Americans of their generation, Tea Party participants often collect federal social benefits such as Social Security, Medicare, and benefits for military veterans. Although they express deep concern about government spending, Tea Partiers believe their own benefits are legitimate. They oppose spending taxpayer money on people they perceive as undeserving, such as unauthorized immigrants, low-income people, minorities, and the young. President Obama is perceived by Tea Party members as acting in the interest of the undeserving at the expense of hardworking Americans. Grassroots activists often engage in political activity on the local or state level, but they have little capacity to hold accountable the national political leaders who have associated themselves with the Tea Party label. The conservative resurgence under the Tea Party banner has had important ramifications for the balance of power within the Republican Party. Far-right elites who have been promoting a low-tax, anti-regulation agenda since the 1970s were quick to connect themselves with the Tea Party protests and to claim grassroots support for their own ideology and policy goals, including privatization of Social Security and Medicare. Popular Tea Party forces are more likely than elites, however, to oppose immigration reforms including any path to citizenship for undocumented residents. Elites claiming to speak for the Tea Party have provided crucial endorsements and funding to far-right Republican candidates. In 2010, Tea Party–linked candidates were primarily successful in Republican strongholds. The more extreme views of Republicans who won elections in 2010 propelled the GOP further rightward, extending a long-term trend of rightward-tilted polarization in US politics.

General Overviews

As of early 2012, relatively few books or articles have been written providing a general overview of all facets of the Tea Party phenomenon. The best works distinguish the elite and grassroots activism operating under the “Tea Party” banner (Bailey, et al. 2011). Skocpol and Williamson 2012 provides a succinct overview of the components of the Tea Party, and explains their dynamics over time, while Formisano 2012 provides a short introduction. Zernike 2010 is a journalistic account of several of the major public events held by Tea Party activists in 2009 and early 2010, with polling of Tea Party sympathizers and interviews with some of the elite actors who attempted to harness Tea Party enthusiasm. Street and DiMaggio 2011 offers a critical analysis of the role of the mass media in the Tea Party mobilization, a point also emphasized in Williamson, et al. 2011. Madestam, et al. connects the Tea Party to anti-tax protests. Two works aim to put the Tea Party into a longer historical analysis. Kabaservice 2012 gives important context for the Tea Party by examining the decades-long decline of moderates in the Republican Party, while Bunch 2010 visits the fringes of the far right, including some elements of the Tea Party. An interpretive work, Lepore 2010 uses anecdotes from Tea Party activists to examine popular perceptions of the American Revolution over time. And van Dyke and Meyer 2014 analyzes the Tea Party as a social movement.

  • Bailey, Michael, Jonathan Mummolo, and Hans Noel. 2011. “The Tea Party and Multiple Channels of Influence on Congress.” Paper presented at the D.C.-Area American Politics Workshop, Washington, DC, 21 June 2011.

    Authors examine the effect of elite and grassroots forces within the Tea Party on representation in Congress.

  • Bunch, Will. The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama. New York: Harper, 2010.

    A left-leaning perspective on the fringes of the right, which nonetheless offers compelling portraits of some grassroots activists.

  • Formisano, Ronald P. The Tea Party: A Brief History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.

    A short introduction to the Tea Party from a scholar of populist movements.

  • Kabaservice, Geoffrey. Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    A useful narrative of the decades-long decline of moderates in the Republican Party.

  • Lepore, Jill. The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

    A book primarily examining popular perceptions of the American Revolution; Lepore includes anecdotes from Tea Party activists in the Boston area.

  • Madestam, Andreas, Daniel Shoag, Stan Veuger, and David Yanagizawa-Drott. “Do Political Protests Matter? Evidence from the Tea Party Movement.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 128.4 (2013): 1633–1685.

    DOI: 10.1093/qje/qjt021

    A quantitative analysis using rainfall on the day of protests as an exogenous source of variation finds that Tax Day protest turnout in 2009 predicted Tea Party support.

  • Skocpol, Theda, and Vanessa Williamson. The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:osobl/9780199832637.001.0001

    Skocpol and Williamson combine fine-grained portraits of local Tea Party members and chapters with an overarching analysis of the movement’s rise, impact, and likely fate.

  • Street, Paul, and Anthony DiMaggio. Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics. Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2011.

    An analysis of the role of the media in the rise of the Tea Party.

  • van Dyke, Nella, and David S. Meyer. Understanding the Tea Party Movement. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014.

    An edited volume that examines the Tea Party movement from within the framework of social movement scholarship.

  • Williamson, Vanessa, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin. “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.” Perspectives on Politics 9.1 (2011): 25–43.

    DOI: 10.1017/S153759271000407X

    A case study of the Greater Boston Tea Party is brought together with media content analysis to consider the interaction of the various forces making up the Tea Party.

  • Zernike, Kate. Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America. New York: Times Books, 2010.

    A journalist’s account of Tea Party protests, activities of elite advocates, and polling results regarding Tea Party demographics.

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