Following the US presidential election in 2008, a wide-ranging right-wing movement that became known as the Tea Party movement formed as a backlash to the administration of President Barack Obama. The Tea Party was broadly a vague anti-establishment, populist movement focused on pushing back on the Obama administration. The ideas and tactics of the movement would later manifest itself in the presidential campaign of the 2016 election, and the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. The movement has had negative and positive effects on democracy. While the movement led to greater civic engagement and greater awareness of certain fiscal issues, the movement also fostered the deliberate spreading of false information and conspiracy theories, the implementation of anti-democratic voting requirements, and fear-mongering of certain groups (Skocpol & Williamson). This undermined the three principles of representative democracy which are popular sovereignty, political equality, and political liberty (Greenberg & Page, 12-15).
Advanced representative democracies such as the United States are rooted in the three principles of representative democracy: popular sovereignty, political equality, and political liberty. In order to be an effective representative democracy, government must be responsive to the wishes of an engaged citizen population that has access to complete and accurate information.The government cannot operate in favor of one group over another. Finally, rights and liberties must be universally available to all, including minorities. Tactics such as the spread of false information, social media trolling, stoking irrational fear of others, and creating obstacles to voting all serve to undermine democracy by undermining the three principles that make representative democracy functional (Greenberg & Page, 12-15)
The Tea party movement began ostensibly as a response to the “big government” agenda of the Obama administration, chiefly the effort towards health-care reform that resulted in the Affordable Care Act. The mobilization of conservatives in opposition to the ACA and the Obama administration created a culture within the movement of conspiracy theories and racism. Outright falsehoods that gained widespread traction among movement followers were rampant, from the notion that the ACA contained a provision for “death panels,” the ACA would cut Medicare by a large amount, and delusions of Sharia law being implemented in America. Among the most prominent was the racist conspiracy theory that President Obama was not born in the United States, the “birther” narrative (Skocpol & Williamson, ch.2).
The so called birther narrative became deeply entrenched within the movement, and when Donald Trump in 2011 began to champion the lie, a wider audience was reached. This false delegitimization of the first African-American President of the United States marked an erosion of the American norm to respect the legitimacy of office of the presidency. This had the effect of weakening popular sovereignty through the spread of this meritless falsehood by leaders that Republicans and Tea party followers trusted, like Trump. Indeed at its height, large numbers of Republican voters and even more among self identified Tea Party members either did not believe Obama was born in the United States, to the so called birther narrative (Skocpol & Williamson). The man who was its most prominent proponent, Donald Trump, is the current President, and he got there in part by lying about the legitimacy of the previous President.
False narratives can be built by leveraging people’s pre-existing assumptions, biases, fears, and crafting a seemingly plausible narrative that is pumped out by people who have mass platforms. Along the way, if not the people who push the falsehood themselves, there are many who know of its absurdity, but facilitate it for personal gain. A notable conspiracy theorist on the right is Alex Jones. Jones has been known to push the most noxious of conspiracy theories, including the birther narrative. He also has said among many other things that September 11 was a government conspiracy, Sandy Hook and other mass shootings were “false flag” events that never happened, and that the government was putting estrogen in juice boxes that was making frogs gay. However Jones’ lawyer stated in a custody battle that Jones regards himself to be a “performance artist” portraying a “character” (Borchers, washingtonpost.com). This mean that someone like Jones likely knows the false narratives he pushes are just that, false.
Donald Trump brought a credibility to the Birther narrative that people like Alex Jones did not have. Donald Trump spoke at the Conservative Action Political Conference (CPAC) in 2011, at the height of the Tea party movement, following the Republican’s massive gains in the House on the backs of the movement (Zeleny, nytimes.com). Donald Trump did extensive interviews on national television during popular network and cable shows constantly pushing the birther narrative, and claiming that he sent “investigators” to Hawaii to find the truth. Donald Trump was testing the waters of running for President on the strength of his media rounds where the issue was the main topic of conversation (Parker ; Eder, nytimes.com). Donald Trump himself admitted in 2016 that Obama was in fact born in the United States, though no new information had emerged. He used the occasion of reversing his promotion of the Birther narrative to claim falsely that the original proponent of the issue was his general election opponent, Hillary Clinton, in her 2008 presidential campaign (Johnson, washingtonpost.com).
A distinction that must be drawn to understand how a lie such as the birther lie damages popular sovereignty is between those who are its proponents and the general population that buys into the narrative. Ultimately, in a system of government such as the United States, it is up to the people to ultimately discern what is true and not true. They then must make their decisions based on whatever information they saw fit to consume. In practice though, there are gatekeepers of information that control the information in the public domain, namely the media, the government, and public figures, who disseminate information. When the gatekeepers give credence to proponents of such narratives that are demonstrably false, and when some of those gatekeepers are themselves proponents, that undermines popular sovereignty by denying people access to complete and accurate information.
Although the Tea party claimed to be a rallying cry for libertarianism, small government, and less social programs, in fact the truth was more complicated. Indeed most self-identified Tea party followers did not support changes to programs such as Social Security or Medicare for themselves. Rather they did not want to pay taxes that would go towards the expansion of social programs for groups they viewed as unworthy, like immigrants, poor people, and the young (Skocpol ; Williamson). If so many self-identified Tea party followers favored social programs for themselves, then it stands to reason that the driving motivation behind Tea party followers was exclusion of the groups they saw as unworthy. The Tea party said in essence they wanted less government, less taxes, more freedom, and more liberty. But if what they favored in practice was more government for themselves, less taxes for only themselves, and less freedom and liberty for other groups, can the movement truly be called a libertarian movement, or a movement based on small government principles? The exclusion of certain groups from certain rights and government programs would violate the democratic principle of political equality, and it seems that many Tea party followers were motivated in part by the idea of violating political equality.
The rise of the tea party also coincided with the push for voter ID laws. These laws arose largely out of anti-immigrant sentiments in the movement, and a desire to disenfranchise a portion of minority voters for political gain given the overwhelmingly Democratic leanings of minority voters. These laws violate political equality by setting standards for voting that can only prevent the extremely rare crime of voter impersonation, but have the effect of effectively disenfranchising groups of eligible voters. These laws do this by specifically requiring IDs that African-Americans and Hispanics are simply less likely to have, and making the process for obtaining those IDs inordinately burdensome, such as imposing inflexible hours in inaccessible locations. This makes it extremely difficult for working class, elderly, or disabled people to obtain the required ID for voting (Skocpol ; Williamson). Many Republicans have acknowledged this intention, wittingly or unwittingly, making clear that the effect of these laws is intended to lower the Democratic vote and increase the election prospects of Republican politicians (Wines, nytimes.com).
Another example of Tea partiers impeding political equality include incidences of poll watching and voter intimidation, particularly of Hispanics. Incidents include a billboard in a low-income Hispanic community in Massachusetts by a Tea Party affiliated group falsely suggesting that voters needed to show ID to vote. The same group also engaged in poll watching that crossed the line into intimidation that the town clerk described as “unnecessary challenges” to Hispanic voters exercising the franchise. Many similar incidents of poll watching and voter intimidation against minorities occurred in other parts of the country, demonstrating the negative effects the Tea party movement had on political equality (Skocpol ; Williamson, epilogue-sec.3).
The Tea party did have some positive effects on democracy. The movement led to followers becoming highly engaged political organizers who became deeply engaged in the political process, even if they often had their facts wrong. Ordinary people, some who had never been engaged in politics before were turning up at local meetings, writing and phoning their legislators, and organizing their peers. The Tea party became particularly skillful at navigating political processes, with activists tracking certain bills through state legislatures, organizing letter writing and phone calls to legislators, and maneuvering local party rules. This mastery of political process contrastes with the wild theories Tea party followers subscribed to. It also contrasts with their left-wing counterparts, who have a tendency to master “content” and not “process” (Skocpol ; Williamson, ch.6-sec.2).
The strength of the Tea party movement led to the Republican party winning a large majority in the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections, and in 2014, the Senate. By 2016, the political resurgence of the Republican party spearheaded by the Tea party was completed. With the election of Donald Trump, and Republican retention of both chambers of Congress, the leaders who moved into government on the strength of the Tea party movement now had the opportunity to govern under a unified federal government. The dissolution of the Tea party and when and if that occured is highly debatable.
I would make the argument that unlike many social movements, which often survive on the strength of a single charismatic leader, the Tea party movement began to dissolve when they found their leader, in this case Donald Trump. The movement that began as a backlash to the Obama administration is now in control of the government, the anti-establishment movement has become the establishment. The election of Donald Trump has inspired a complacency on the part of Tea party activists, and the grassroots ‘energy as it currently stands today is firmly on the side of progressive activists.