TEA PARTY MOVEMENT: 'Take our country back'

March 17, 2010

In three readings, students explore the origins of the movement, its anti-government anger, its alliances, and consider its relationship to what historian Richard Hofstadter called 'The Paranoid Style in American Politics.' Discussion questions and subjects for inquiry and writing follow.

To the Teacher

The Tea Party movement entered the nation's consciousness during the past year with sizable and at times very angry public demonstrations. The first two student readings below describe the origins of the movement, the reasons for its anti-government anger, and its alliances. The third reading includes excerpts from American historian Richard Hofstadter's classic essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," and raises questions about its applicability to Tea Party activists. Discussion questions and subjects for inquiry and writing follow.


Student Reading 1:

Fear of the government


"SANDPOINT, Idaho — Pam Stout has not always lived in fear of her government. She remembers her years working in federal housing programs, watching government lift struggling families with job training and education. She beams at the memory of helping a Vietnamese woman get into junior college.

"But all that was before the Great Recession and the bank bailouts, before Barack Obama took the White House by promising sweeping change on multiple fronts, before her son lost his job and his house. Mrs. Stout said she awoke to see Washington as a threat, a place where crisis is manipulated — even manufactured — by both parties to grab power.

"She was happily retired, and had never been active politically. But last April, she went to her first Tea Party rally, then to a meeting of the Sandpoint Tea Party Patriots."

After months of investigation and in a front page story, David Barstow of the New York Times reported on interviews around the country with people like Pam Stout and meetings of the Tea Party and other groups loosely affiliated with it, such as Friends for Liberty, FreedomWorks, Glenn Beck's 9/12 Project, Oath Keepers, the John Birch Society.

"Tea Party events have become a magnet for other groups and causes," wrote Barstow, "including gun rights activities, anti-tax crusaders, libertarians, militia organizers, the 'birthers' who doubt President Obama's citizenship...It is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny." ("Lighting a Fuse for Rebellion on the Right: Loose Alliances of Protesters Join Under Tea Party Umbrella," New York Times, 2/16/10)

The first tea party and the birth of a new one

Boston, December 16, 1773: A group of colonists boarded three British ships, seized their loads of tea, and threw them into Boston harbor, in an event known ever after as the Boston Tea Party.

Almost every American knows why: Bostonians resented a tax that had been levied on tea by the British parliament. "No taxation without representation" was their war cry.

The new Tea Party was born on February 19, 2009, when CNBC editor Rick Santelli, in a broadcast from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, railed against a government mortgage refinancing plan aimed at helping prevent some foreclosures. Santelli called it "subsidizing losers' mortgages" and spoke of a coming "Chicago Tea Party" protest.

April 15, 2009, Income Tax Day: Demonstrators gathered across the country from Yakima, Washington, to Washington D.C. At a Tea Party demonstration outside the White House, one protester threw a box of teabags over the fence. Protests around the country drew a total attendance of 250,000-500,000. (Beth Rowen, "History of the Tea Party Movement," www.infoplease.com)

The demonstrators, like Pam Stout, were angry, fearful and resentful over government's spending programs, especially the big bank bailouts that were financed by taxpayers who are TEA, "Taxed Enough Already."

This movement began with the boiling-over frustrations of particular individuals. Keli Carender of Seattle could not reach her senators to express opposition to President Obama's $787 billion stimulus bill, which was intended to kick-start an economy in deep recession. She decided to organize a protest rally early last year and drew 120 people against what she called the "porkulus." ("Pork" is a favor handed out by politicians to win votes and the "ulus" comes from the last four letters in "stimulus").

Six weeks later, a Carender-organized protest drew 1,200. Soon she was "among about 60 Tea Party leaders flown to Washington to be trained in election activism by FreedomWorks, the conservative advocacy organization led by Dick Armey, the former House Republican leader." (Kate Zernike, "Unlikely Activist Who Got to the Tea Party Early," New York Times, 2/27/10)

The trouble with TARP

In the final months of the Bush administration, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulsen, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and other government advisors decided that only immediate action could avert the nation's financial collapse.

TARP (Troubled Assent Relief Program) was the result, and in October 2008 the U.S. Treasury Department sent hundreds of billions of dollars to AIG, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, the Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and a host of other lesser-known financial institutions.

These were the very institutions that had created the derivatives and other mysterious "financial instruments" that had caused the financial meltdown. The resulting human misery included:

  • cascading numbers of home foreclosures, resulting in desolate neighborhoods
  • widespread unemployment
  • millions in need of emergency food help
  • countless people losing their retirement pensions
  • people having to choose between paying the rent or buying food

"Carender identified a tactic that would prove invaluable in the months of raucous town-hall meetings and demonstrations to follow: adopting the idealistic energy of liberal college students. 'Unlike the melodramatic lefties, I do not want to get arrested,' she wrote. 'I do, however, want to take a page from their playbook and be loud, obnoxious, and in their faces.'" (Ben McGrath, "The Rise of Tea Party Activism," The New Yorker, 2/1/10)


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What specific government actions fuel anger and resentment among Tea Party members?

3. What leads them to conclude that the US government has become tyrannical?

4. What link do you think they wanted to make between the reason for the Boston Tea Party and their own actions?

5. What are "derivatives"? What did they have to do with the financial crisis? If you don't know, how might you find out?

6. What is TARP? Why did US officials think it essential? Was it? How do you know? What is it about TARP that angered Tea Party advocates?


Student Reading 2:

Ready for another revolution?


Darin Stevens of Spokane, Washington, discovered the conservative Fox commentator Glenn Beck, and began to "think of Washington as a conspiracy to fleece the little guy. 'I had no clue that my country was being taken from me,'" said Stevens. (Barstow, New York Times, 2/15/10) He later started a chapter of Beck's 9/12 Project, a Tea Party ally.

The Tea Party is a movement "with no clear leadership and no centralized structure. Not everyone flocking to the Tea Party movement is worried about dictatorship. Some have a basic aversion to big government, or Mr. Obama, or progressives in general. What's more, some Tea Party groups are essentially appendages of the local Republican Party. But most are not."

Leaders are often people with no political experience, but they "tell strikingly similar stories of having been awakened by the recession. Their families upended by lost jobs, foreclosed homes and depleted retirement funds, they said they wanted to know why it happened and whom to blame..." (New York Times, 2/15/10)

"The motto of the Tea Party Patriots, a large coalition of groups, is 'fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets,'" writes Kate Zernike in the New York Times, (3/13/10). A questionnaire these groups use to judge political candidates "poses 80 questions, most on the proper role of government, tax policy and the federal budgeting process, and virtually none on social issues...

"Tea Party leaders argue that the country can ill afford the discussion about social issues when it is passing on enormous debts to future generations. But the focus is also strategic: leaders think they can attract independent voters if they stay away from divisive issues...Raising social issues, the movement's leaders say, risks fracturing the strength it has built. 'Every social issue you bring, you're adding planks to your mission,' said Frank Anderson," the founder of a Tea Party-affiliated group. 'And planks become splinters.'" (Kate Zernike, "Seeking a Big Tent, Tea Party Avoids Divisive Social Issues," New York Times, 3/13/10)

The Tea Party, like the liberal groups it opposes, wants more jobs. But it also wants less government and a smaller government deficit.

Some people at Tea Party gatherings say they want to eliminate the federal income tax, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — government programs that keep millions of people out of poverty and enable them to get needed healthcare. On these issues, Tea Partiers are on the far right.

But Tea Party activists agree with people on the political left in some of their critiques of government. For instance, since 9/11, the Patriot Act and other laws have given government the power to tap into phones, email accounts, even library records. Liberals join conservatives like Mary Johnson, recording secretary of the Las Cruces (NM) Tea Party on this one. She explained it was why she fears the government. "Twenty years ago that would have been a paranoid statement. It's not anymore." (Barstow, New York Times)

Tea Party digs Palin, Palin digs at Obama

Former Alaska government and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was the keynote speaker at the first National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, Tennessee. She "gave the Tea Party crowd exactly what they wanted to hear," wrote Zernike in the New York Times (2/6/10), "declaring the primacy of the Tenth Amendment in limiting government powers, complaining about the bailouts and the 'generational theft' of rising deficits, and urging the audience to back conservative challengers in contested primaries. 'America is ready for another revolution!' she told the crowd, prompting the first of several standing ovations...

Palin urged the 1,100 delegates not to let the movement be defined by any one leader. "This is about the people, and it's bigger than any one king or queen of a tea party, and it's a lot bigger than any charismatic guy with a teleprompter," she said.

In a dig at President Obama, Palin asked the crowd, "How's that hopey-changey thing workin' out for you?'" She attacked Obama for the rising deficit and for being weak in "the war on terrorism." "To win that war," Palin declared, "we need a commander in chief, not a professor of law." (Kate Zernike, "Palin Assails Obama at Tea Party Meeting," New York Times, 2/6/10)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why might Tea Party activists be opposed to a federal law requiring health insurance? If you don't know, how might you find out?

3. What is a social issue? Name one. Why do Tea Party strategists avoid discussing them?

4. Consider Sarah Palin's support for the Tenth Amendment, her opposition to the growing government deficit, and her charge that Obama is "weak" on terror. Why might Tea Party advocates support her on these issues? What do you know about the deficit and why it has grown? If you needed more information, how might you find it?

5. Why do some in the Tea Party oppose the federal income tax? Social Security? Medicare? Medicaid? If you don't know, how might you find out?

6. What is paranoia? A "paranoid statement"? Is Mary Johnson's basis for fearing the government the result of paranoia? Why or why not? Do you fear the government? Why or why not?


Student Reading 3:

The paranoid style

"American politics has often been an arena for angry minds," American historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in an essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." He was writing in 1964, when he saw "angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers" active in an effort to elect Barry Goldwater president. Hofstadter wrote that these activists demonstrated "how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority."

But Hofstadter wrote that "behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind." Hofstadter cited members of such groups as the Ku Klux Klan, the John Birch Society, and McCarthyites to demonstrate what he meant.

"The paranoid spokesman...does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised...[for] what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil...Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated...

"The demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid's sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes...

"The enemy makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced...The paranoid's interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone's will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds..."

Frustration and paranoid violence

Neither Andrew Stack III nor John Bedell was a Tea Party activist. Both did share, though, the Tea Partiers' anger about a government they saw as out of the control. They thought the situation demanded direct and violent action.

Stack, a tax protester, deliberately flew a small plane into an office building of the Internal Revenue Service in Austin, Texas, on February 18. The attack killed one IRS employee, along with Stack, and injured more than a dozen others. A suicide note made it clear that Stack was furious with the US government, in general, and the IRS, in particular—and at big corporations.

On March 4, John Bedell arrived at the entrance to the Pentagon, pulled out two 9-millimeter semiautomatic weapons and began shooting. His attack injured two police officers before he was killed. Bedell had raged on the internet against what he viewed as a dictatorial government and its financial policies, among other things.

"Take our country back"

Pam Stout, who became an Oath Keeper militia group supporter as well as a Tea Party organizer, worked to get petitions signed "to impeach Mr. Obama; petitions to audit the Federal Reserve; petitions to support Sarah Palin," reported Barstow in the New York Times. She worked on "appeals urging defiance of any federal law requiring health insurance." She thinks about the possibility of "another civil war" and "believes that basic freedoms are threatened." Stout said, "'I don't see us being the ones to start it, but I would give up my life for my country...Peaceful means are the best way of going about it. But sometimes you are not given a choice."

New Yorker reporter Ben McGrath described a gathering at a restaurant near the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. It ended with an invitation to a guitarist to play "and before long Hank from Gravesend and Julie from Chelsea and Kellen from Morningside Heights were singing along to the chorus of a folk anthem in that great American tradition."

Take it back,
Take our country back.
Our way of life is now under attack.
Draw a line in the sand, so they all understand
And our values stay intact.
Take it back.

("The Movement: The Rise of Tea Party Activism," www.newyorker.com, 2/1/10)


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Hofstadter wrote that the paranoid style evokes "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy"? Do such characteristics describe Tea Party activists? Why or why not? In what ways did any of the groups Hofstadter mentioned reflect the paranoid style? If you don't know, how might you find out?

3. What other characteristics of the paranoid style does Hofstadter identify? Do any of them describe Tea Party activists? Why or why not?

4. Were the actions of Stack and Bedell examples of "the paranoid style in American politics"? Why or why not?

5. What makes Pam Stout think about the possibility of "another civil war"? What do you understand her to mean by, "But sometimes you are not given a choice"?

6. How does "Take it back..." reflect a Tea Party theme?


For inquiry and writing

1. Ask students to select for inquiry any one of the policies Tea Party activists oppose or support. Assume that the policy, whatever it is, could be enacted. After students have done some investigation, have them write an essay with an introduction, several paragraphs of analysis, and a conclusion in which they describe the Tea Party policy and explain their view of the beneficial and/or negative effects for the country if it was enacted.

2. Do Tea Party advocates reflect "the paranoid style in American politics"? Ask students to investigate this question. They might read Hofstadter's entire essay, (Harper's Magazine, November, 1964, http://www.harpers.org/archive/1964/11/0014706). Assign students to write an essay with an introduction, several paragraphs of analysis, and a conclusion in which they discuss and explain their view.

3. Hofstadter identifies the Ku Klux Klan, John Birch Society, and McCarthyites as behaving in the paranoid style. Ask students to investigate one of these groups, then write an essay with an introduction, several paragraphs of analysis, and a conclusion in which they discuss and explain why they agree, disagree, or have mixed feelings about Hofstadter's view.


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org