SEEMINGLY OUT of nowhere, the newly founded conservative tea party delivered a stunning blow to Democrats in the November 2010 election, causing them to lose control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Just two years earlier, the 2008 election had severely weakened Republican forces with the election of the country’s first African-American president, Barack Obama, who won by promising change after eight years of the Bush administration.
Two recently published, fascinating books, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, by Harvard social policy experts Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, and Ayn Rand Nation, by award-winning financial journalist Gary Weiss, provide a treasure trove of careful research, new material, and balanced reporting that throws much-needed light on how the tea party was born and how it became a lightning rod for many frustrated Americans.
Who are the tea party members? They are, for the most part, middle-class white people over the age of 45, as the general media have already reported. But as one tea partier told the Harvard researchers, “We are not a bunch of uneducated, racist rednecks.” Her view is, in part, corroborated in the book. Skocpol and Williamson found through hundreds of interviews that the movement is indeed made up of many college-educated people (some graduates, some not) who live throughout the U.S. They are engineers, IT managers, small businesspeople, home contractors, and teachers. Although as a group they lost jobs, businesses, and retirement money in the recent recession, they were not hit nearly as hard, report the Harvard researchers, as those with lower incomes.
What brought out tea party rage? One source was an unlikely populist crusader, CNBC financial broadcaster Rick Santelli, who suddenly began ranting on the air on Feb. 19, 2009, that “the government is rewarding bad behavior” by subsidizing those about to lose their homes through President Obama’s home foreclosure relief plan. His rant was picked up by the Drudge Report and then rebroadcast through the major media.