Although its model, the Boston Tea Party, started a revolution, the Tea Party movement has left hardly a ripple in history. Launched on a large scale on Feb. 19, 2009, when CNBC’s Rick Santelli ranted on television against an Obama administration proposal to help homeowners facing foreclosure, the movement “jumped the shark” — to use a metaphor from TV — in the summer of 2011. Under pressure from Tea Party activists, the Republican Party came close to threatening the credit rating of the U.S. by refusing to allow the federal debt ceiling to be raised. The public turned against what was viewed as an intransigent movement of uncompromising fanatics.
By October 2011, according to Time magazine, the Occupy Wall Street movement was twice as popular as the Tea Party movement. Indeed, 65 percent of those polled viewed the Tea Party as having a negative or harmful effect on American politics. Between fall 2011 and spring 2012, support for the Tea Party among young adults plunged to 31 percent from 51 percent.
Far from being an independent movement of swing voters, like those of Ross Perot’s Reform Party in 1992, the Tea Party always represented a segment of the Republican Party base, where it finds its present home. Although its influence has waned, we can expect more of the kind of politics that the Tea Party represents. In a slow growth or no-growth economy, the politics of shared prosperity gives way to zero-sum struggles, as countries and groups within countries battle to preserve their wealth and privileges while forcing austerity on others. Rick Santelli voiced the selfish logic of zero-sum politics when he denounced Americans with underwater mortgages as “losers”: “Do we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages?” Thanks to the Great Recession, an optimistic politics of “enlarging the winners’ circle” has given way to a bitter politics in which all too many Americans try to stave off losses to themselves by tossing “losers” overboard.