Today marks the fifth anniversary of the Tax Day protests, when the tea party indelibly inscribed itself on American politics. While February 19, the day of CNBC analyst Rick Santelli’s rant heard ‘round the world, is credited as the movement’s official starting point, the Tax Day protests marked the moment when the disparate parts of the tea party came together: grassroots activists, old-guard conservative advocacy groups and right-wing media personalities. Five years later, though, the tea party that formed that day has lost its political influence. What happened?
For the groups involved, the 2009 Tax Day protests were a reunion, not a debut. This was the conservative movement with a bit of new blood and a major new grievance: the government bailouts of 2008 and the economic stimulus package of 2009. Yet while the targets were fresh, the tea party’s older heritage bled through. The name itself — TEA, Taxed Enough Already — called back to the tax revolts of the 1970s and Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge of the 1980s. In April 2009, that emphasis was a bit off-key: the federal tax burden for most Americans was near record lows. But the name stuck.
People who identified with the tea party, as Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson showed, were far more likely than other Americans to have been political activists prior to 2009. At a Romney rally in Miami in 2012, I met a father and son, both tea party supporters. The boy was about 13 or 14, and his father regaled those waiting in line with the story of his son’s first political rally: in a stroller outside the Miami-Dade courthouse, protesting the Bush-Gore ballot recount. Yet whether long-time activists or first-time signholders, on the five-year anniversary of the Tax Day protests few tea partiers are hoisting their Gadsden flags at public rallies.
Five years out, the advocacy groups and media personalities have also moved on. During the 2009 Tax Day protests, FreedomWorks emerged as a major organizational voice of the tea party. For a movement meant to embody a populist spirit, FreedomWorks was off-message. Tracing its origins to David Koch’s Citizens for a Sound Economy, founded in 1984, and co-chaired by Dick Armey, a former House majority leader, the organization was hardly a grassroots upstart. Still, it gamely adopted the tea party identity as a sponsor of the Tax Day protests. After a number of major missteps in the 2012 election, however, FreedomWorks lost its swagger. For 2014, the organization has endorsed sure things rather than long-shot insurgents. At National Journal, Josh Kraushaar noted this is “a far cry from the early ambitions of the aggressively antiestablishment group.”
For conservative media, the 2009 Tax Day protests cemented the impression that media personalities would be the vanguard of a resurgent right. Glenn Beck rose to prominence as the movement’s emotive id, briefly displacing Rush Limbaugh as the central voice of American conservatism. Fox News joined in as well, heavily promoting the Tax Day rallies across the network. That, too, has gone into eclipse. Beck has left Fox News and receded from the headlines. And in a recent interview with Fortune, Rupert Murdoch called the idea that Fox News promoted the tea party “bullshit” (a claim Media Matters immediately dismantled).
This dissolution should come as no surprise, given the tea party’s waning popularity and disastrous electoral record. A number of commentators, including conservatives, have applauded this decline. Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post wrote that the tea partiers “used to be the tail wagging the dog; now these characters are just howling at the moon.” Kraushaar said simply “the Tea Party is over.”
That’s not quite right. Yes, the tea party label has passed its expiration date, especially in the world of electoral politics. But its decline makes clear that “tea party” was more of a brand than a faction. Politicians like Marco Rubio and Rand Paul embraced the tea party identity during their rise to power; now secure as party leaders, they no longer need, or really fit, the tea party model. Among political commentators, “tea party” became a sort of lazy shorthand, often serving as a substitute for in-depth analysis of the shifts within the Republican Party. Tea party versus establishment, tea party versus pragmatists, tea party versus Republicans — the tea party label has done a lot of heavy lifting since 2009. As the phrase loses its utility, political analysts will have to be more precise in describing the internal politics of the Republican Party, and politicians who relied on the label for its populist verve will have to find new ways to explain where they stand. And that’s something worth celebrating this Tax Day.