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What the Tea Party Is, Is Not, and its 'Core Competence'

What the Tea Party Is

The Tea Party is a social movement based on cultural values that seeks to influence politics. All of its members are united by just two universal grievances:

  • The government borrows and spends too much.
  • The government has become a threat to individual liberty.

A majority of Tea Partiers — but not all — generally agree with “conservative” political positions on foreign policy, immigration, social issues including abortion, etc. However, there is no universal movement consensus on these, so by definition they are not "Tea Party issues."

Even on tax and labor issues there is not a universal Tea Party position. For example, some members are willing to compromise on taxes to address their debt concerns, and some (such as fiscally conservative Democrats) do not support right-to-work laws (although practically all agree that government employee unions are a serious contributor to the overspending problem).

The Tea Party’s Core Competence

There is one big thing this movement can accomplish, and which is its “core competence”:

Tea Party members in individual legislative and congressional districts can scare the living daylights out of their own lawmakers (and only theirs), when those politicians talk-the-talk of Tea Party values and concerns, but don’t walk-the-walk with their votes. Movement members and groups can accomplish this by frequently “busting” those politicians for specific “business as usual” votes favoring the interests of the big-government establishment over those of the people.

“Busting” simply means telling individual politicians that you know about and are unhappy with  particular roll call votes they have taken. It’s not necessary or even desirable to explain what’s wrong with the vote. Just identify yourself and complain — like a puppy being disciplined for making a mess, they’ll figure it out themselves, and they already know the consequences if they don’t.

The greatest service local Tea Party leaders can provide is to facilitate and encourage members in performing this activity.

What the Tea Party Is Not

  • It’s not a political party.
  • It’s not a “shadow government.”
  • It's not a lobbyist.
  • It’s not a think tank.
  • It’s not any particular state, national or even local organization.

This means there are things the movement is not capable of doing:

1.  It’s not capable of achieving effectiveness by endorsing candidates. Movement members who question this should look no further than the 2010 Michigan 2nd Congressional primary, where local Tea Party groups split their endorsements between two political outsiders, thereby contributing to the victory of an establishment politician.

In most cases, who loses an election is more important than who wins (because of the message it sends to all other politicians), so this inability is less a handicap than many imagine. (See Tea Party Activists Have Attitude for more on this.)

In contrast, the Tea Party can be effective by giving “non-endorsements” to politicians who don’t represent its values and concerns. In 2010 in Delaware, Utah, Alaska and some other places, the movement “non-endorsed” establishment politicians, causing Tea Party favorites to win primaries or caucuses, and even more important, sending a loud message to the entire ruling elite.

Tea Party groups are also capable of providing a useful service by giving all candidates in a race one of two up-or-down ratings: “Meets the criteria” on core movement issues, or does not meet them.

2. The Tea Party is not capable of creating comprehensive legislative programs, and can’t achieve effectiveness by immersing its members in the “sausage making” details of the legislative process. In other words, it can’t do lawmakers’ jobs for them, but only reward those who make the right choices, and punish those who don’t.

3. The Tea Party cannot acheive effectiveness by routinely lobbying lawmakers before specific votes, in part because the realities of the legislative process make the timing and details of fast-moving legislation impossible to pin down: There's a reason special interests pay thousands of dollars to professional lobbyists to be on the scene in the Capitol at all times.

4. The Tea Party is not capable of providing a single person or group at any level who speaks for or directs the movement. Therefore, since no one does these things, that means any member has an equal right to be a spokesperson and execute actions directed at the movement’s core values and grievances.

There’s an “11th Commandment” corollary to this: Thou shalt not speak ill of any other movement leader or movement member. It’s alright to disagree civilly with specific ideas or programs, but never acceptable to make personal attacks in public, or privately in the presence of nonmembers. A second corollary is, thou shalt always grant other Tea Party leaders and movement members the presumption of good will.


If Tea Party members persistently, unambiguously and in large numbers execute the movement’s core competence of enforcing its values on politicians, they can change the world by changing the incentives that cause elected officials to vote the way they do. If its members don’t do this, and instead divert their limited resources into activities outside the movement’s capabilities, it could become just a footnote in future history books.


Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to the 2010 Michigan 3rd Congressional Republican district primary election. The correct reference is to the 2010 2nd district primary.

See also:

Tea Party Activists Have Attitude

Tea Party Could Cut Up the Federal Credit Card

Memo to Media: Tea Party's Bite is as Big as its Bark

Associated Press: Tea Parties are "A Lot of Noise" and "No Muscle"

Are Tea Parties "A Lot of Noise" and "No Muscle"?

Tea Partiers Take Credit for Stupak's Retirement Newsmaker Friday: Day on the Tea Party Movement

Will the Tea Party Fade if Republicans Win It All?


Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.