The Tea Party
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While a recent enough phenomenon that most people alive today would remember its origins, the Tea Party has an eye-raising surprise in store for future students of history who may investigate how and when it began. The legendary conservative backlash against prevalent liberal policies in government started under a Republican President once celebrated by the right for his conservative heroics.

During his time in office, George W Bush (and the Congress under him, both houses of which seated Republican majorities until 2006) demonstrated spending tendencies that were widely criticized as unrepresentative of conservative principles. In fact, they were called extravagant, even fiscally liberal. Bush's administration was responsible for the “Prescription Drug Benefit” expansion of Medicare, and of course for the post-911 invasion of Iraq, both of which carried hefty price tags and were largely paid for via radical growth of the national debt, angering right-wingers who felt the nation's financial house was not in order despite their own party's ostensibly holding power. When the first round of almost universally-deplored corporate bailouts came through following the start of the recession, it was the last straw: Fiscal conservatives rose up in protest, forming their own subdivision of the GOP to demand financial responsibility. They called themselves the TEA Party, a reference to the infamous Boston Tea Party held in defiance of the British crown in colonial times. The name was originally short for Taxed Enough Already, but nowadays that acronym is rarely used.

And there may be a reason the group has quietly abandoned that initial interpretation of its name, as the Tea Party has changed much in its young lifetime. Since its inception, the movement named in honor of a tax revolt has strongly embraced the religious right, to the point that socially conservative principles have arguably become its primary focus above even the fiscally conservative ideology that spawned it. Always a group that hosted the furthest-right Republicans who felt disenfranchised by the party's perceived centrist ways, however, the spiritual platform of the Tea Party has veered into extreme territory, worrying those in the GOP whose views are less severe. Tea Party politicians – for the movement has grown powerful, counting among its ranks candidates who enjoy considerable support, especially in state elections – have made statements that many others find nothing short of embarrassing. Congressman Paul Broun, for instance, criticizing the ideas of evolution and the Big Bang (due to their perceived incompatibility with the teachings of the Holy Bible), called the scientific theories “lies straight from the pit of Hell.” Former representative Todd Akin, meanwhile, assured viewers on Fox News that a doctor friend told him a woman cannot become pregnant as a result of rape – a common fringe view among conservatives with, it must be admitted, little scientific basis, widely panned and seen as an attempt by pro-life individuals to avoid the awkward question of allowing abortion in cases where a woman was sexually assaulted.

But even with views seen as absurd by a large proportion of the American electorate, the Tea Party cannot safely be dismissed. Its strongly conservative leanings have attracted great numbers of Republicans, to the point where many mainstream GOP politicians encounter difficulty winning election without the group's support. As a result, such candidates often feel compelled to publicly agree with or at least speak sympathetically of extreme Tea Party ideas to win a nomination, locking themselves into the position of having to explain their statements to a more centrist audience in the general election. And of course, it is a persistent fear among Republicans that if sufficiently incensed, adherents of the protest movement will fully splinter off and form a true political Tea Party, complete with its own primaries and candidates. Such an event would be a disaster for the GOP, fracturing its base down the middle and catastrophically splitting its votes to a degree that would not be easily repaired.

Still, it would be a mistake to infer that the Tea Party owns the GOP. While having become undeniably powerful with impressive rapidity since its birth, there are early signs of reconciliation between the Tea Party and its larger parent. Republicans are hosting a large number of candidates vying for the 2016 presidential nomination, many of whom are staunchly conservative without being widely viewed as extreme, yet remain generally agreeable to the solidly right-wing Tea Party. The Tea Party, meanwhile, is generally aware that a full split would be harmful not only to Republicans, but to itself as well. If each of the two groups continue reaching towards one another in this manner, it is possible that the rift between them can eventually heal. But if differences between the GOP and the Tea Party sharpen, especially to the point where the latter feels the need to go its own way, then there could well be trouble.


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