Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Primary and the Tea Party

Republicans have shown increasing receptivity to embracing tea party principles, ever since the movement catapulted the party to victories in 2010. Without its support, several establishment Republican candidates—for example, U.S. Senators Bob Bennett in Utah and Lisa Murkowski in Alaska – found themselves on the losing side.

On the eve of the New Hampshire primary, we asked constitutional law expert and author of The Tea Party, Elizabeth Price Foley, how the movement has played a role in shaping the Republican candidates campaigns, and how it will continue to play into the election.

In the book, you say that there’s not really such a thing as a tea party, but instead refer to a tea party movement. What’s the distinction between the two?


A political party is a top-down group, united by a political viewpoint and having a discernible head. The tea party movement defies this definition. It’s bottom-up, and it has no discernible head. It’s been analogized (aptly, I think) to a starfish rather than a spider. It has no “central nervous system” that makes decisions or that, once decapitated, destroys the organism. It is a disperse group of people, united by a core set of principles, with little to no central organizing structure.

The open-source structure of the tea party movement makes it highly effective, politically. It can move quickly, changing with circumstances. Equally important, it has no invested loyalty to any candidate or group of candidates. Its cohesiveness turns only on its members’ common commitment to issues, or principles, which are identified and explained in the book.

How do you think the tea party will play into this election, compared with 2010?


We’re just about to find out. I think we can already see the tea party’s imprint on all of the major Republican candidates for President. They have each adopted various aspects of the tea party’s principles and are consciously courting the movement.

The fact that there’s no single tea party presidential candidate is, in the minds of some, an indication that the tea party’s influence is diminishing. But I think this fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the tea party movement. It isn’t looking to anoint an identifiable leader. Indeed, I think it is assiduously avoiding doing so.

It’s a movement of principles, not politics. So the goal of tea partiers is to get candidates elected—of any political party—who will embrace some or all of their principles and positions, whether on immigration, the war on terror, or health care reform. This has been a largely successful strategy, at least within the Republican party, which has shown more receptivity to embracing tea party principles overall. But even within Republican ranks, there have been many establishment Republican candidates—for example, U.S. Senators Bob Bennett in Utah and Lisa Murkowski in Alaska — who lost in the primary because they didn’t have the support of tea partiers.

The basic idea of the tea party movement seems to be to infiltrate the existing Republican party and cause it to move in the direction of adopting the movement’s core principles.

I expect to see the same movement in the state and federal legislative elections in 2012.  The tea party had tremendous victories in the 2010 mid-terms, and I don’t see this diminishing in 2012.  If anything, I expect them to add to the tea party ranks in both state and federal legislatures.

You say in the book that the Tea Party is more about principles than about politics. How can candidates of both major parties harness those principles in their campaigning?


They can read this book. It will tell them, in simple, clear language, what principles bind the tea partiers together and how those principles manifest in various issues today.  It explains why these principles were of such critical importance to the founding generation, and why they are still of critical importance today.

If candidates want to harness the principles of importance to tea partiers, they need to know what those principles are, why they are important, and pledge to honor those principles if and when elected. It’s really that simple.

Let’s talk about Herman Cain. Why do you think he was so popular among those who identify themselves with the Tea Party? Do you see a presidential contender emerging that might gain similar support?


I don’t think Cain was “the” tea party candidate, by any stretch of the imagination. Again, the very nature of the tea party is going to prevent any one candidate from being anointed “the” tea party presidential candidate. I think tea partiers overall viewed Cain quite favorably, as well as other candidates such as Ron Paul and Mitt Romney, because they’re each generally aligned with tea party principles. They are campaigning principally on platforms that favor limited government, a strong defense of U.S. sovereignty, and constitutional originalism. And like the tea partiers, they’re agnostic about or not particularly concerned with pushing any agenda relating to social issues such as abortion or gay marriage.

What can liberals discover in reading this book? Conservatives? Tea partiers?


Any person, of any ideological bent, can learn something important about their own Constitution. They can learn about 3 critically important constitutional principles—limited government; the importance of defending U.S. sovereignty; and originalism—that should, at least in theory, cross ideological boundaries and be embraced by all Americans. These are, after all, American, not conservative principles.

Along the way, readers of all types can better understand what motivates the tea party movement. Rather than drinking the Koolaid of the common portrayal of them, they can look at the substance of the movement and make their own assessment as to whether they think the principles of concern to the tea party are good or bad.  I suspect rather strongly that if ordinary Americans really understand what is at stake in these modern constitutional battles, they would consider themselves aligned with the tea party. Most Americans don’t realize that the constitutional architecture has been severely eroded—that it’s just a shell of what it was meant to be. If they understood this, I think they’d be shocked, and saddened, but ultimately re-engaged, as has been the case with the tea partiers.

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