The Tea Party Movement: Core Beliefs and Ideas

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Strangers In Their Own Land" by Arlie Russell Hochschild. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What was the Tea Party movement? What are the beliefs of the Tea Party movement and how do these beliefs continue to shape conservative values?

The Tea Party movement was founded in 2009 and focused on fiscal conservatism. Fundamentally, the Tea Party believed that their rightful place in the social hierarchy was being taken away, and they were losing their path to the American Dream.

Read more about the Tea Party movement and how it shaped conversative values.

Honor and the Tea Party Movement

We know that the deep story is a huge part of conservative politics. Now let’s explore that analysis and understand a key theme that runs through much of right-wing politics: honor. By understanding their culture of honor, we can gain deep insight into how members of the right view themselves as losing status and position in the world—critical if we are to overcome the empathy wall and find common ground.

Specifically, we’ll explore these Tea Party politics:

  • The common belief among the Tea Party movement supporters that undeserving “others” have cut in front of them in the line to the American Dream, something that greatly insults their sense of honor
  • The economic woes of many older, white working-class men, which contributes to their feelings of alienation and shame—and makes them highly receptive to right-wing politics
  • The perceived loss of cultural dominance felt by many white conservative Christians
  • How the struggle to maintain their honor in a hostile world leads conservatives to adopt a culture of endurance, which finds expression in a few unique ways

Cutting in Line

A major driver of the resentment felt by many Tea Party members is the belief that undeserving “others” have cut in front of them in the line to the American Dream. The feeling of having one’s rightful position usurped stands as a tremendous insult to the honor and dignity of people who believe this as a core part of Tea Party politics.

These conservatives see themselves as having worked hard, sacrificed, and played by the rules their entire lives, only to be rewarded with stagnating wages, blocked opportunities, frustrated dreams, and, in the case of southwestern Louisiana, poisoned air and drinking water.

The Tea Party movement members—predominantly (although not exclusively) older, white, rural, Christian, native-born, and male—see an increasingly diverse, unrecognizable, and alien America usurping their rightful place at the front of the line. They see programs such as affirmative action, cash assistance, and higher education subsidies as taking their hard-earned money and giving it away to provide unfair advantages to other social groups—young people, African-Americans and Latin people, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and women.
They feel left behind, isolated, and marginalized in a country that they believed was created by their hard work and sacrifice—in other words, they are strangers in their own land, robbed of their deserved rewards.

Loss of Status

Closely tied to the idea that they are being displaced by line jumpers is the notion, popular among those on the right, that they are losing their once-privileged social status. White Christian men in particular (who comprise a disproportionate share of the Republican base) believe that they have lost their dominance in both the economic and cultural spheres.

Declining Wealth

While you may disagree with the political views espoused by Tea Party members, it is impossible to deny that many white working-class people have indeed lost ground within the nation’s economic hierarchy. To many, this certainly feels like they are being robbed of their just rewards.

People born after 1950 have, on average, seen their real incomes (wages when adjusted for inflation) steadily decline as they get older, leading to an alarming downward mobility. This is the inverse of the fabled American Dream—people are doing worse than the generation that preceded them. This is an important belief in Tea Party politics.

This trend is especially true for people without a college education, as is the case with many Tea Partiers in southwestern Louisiana. Global economic developments have exacerbated this trend. Globalization has made it easy for large multinational corporations to export low-wage, low-skill manufacturing jobs overseas; moreover, automation greatly reduces the need for human workers. 

Once-thriving communities across the United States have been hollowed out and destroyed, leading to economic misery and social decay. For a certain subset of white men, their inability to provide for themselves or their families is a deep source of emasculating shame. This affront to their honor leads them to cast about for someone to blame for their plight—and in their outrage and despair, they are increasingly drawn to far-right politics of resentment.

(Shortform note: To learn more about how the economic decline of America’s manufacturing sector has impacted white working-class communities, read our summary of JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis.)

Loss of Cultural Dominance

Many of the Tea Party movement supporters also bemoan their loss of cultural dominance, with movies and television shows now appearing to cater exclusively to minorities, LGBTQ people, and non-binary people, while portraying non-traditional families in a positive light.

For them, there appears to be no more room in American pop culture for the traditional, white family. As rural white Southerners, people on the right in the Lake Charles area of Louisiana deeply resent demeaning media depictions of their communities as being filled with ignorant and racist “hicks” or “rednecks.” 

Distressingly, they find that the values and norms they hold dear—being heterosexual, married, churchgoing, and traditional—are scorned by the media and Hollywood as being backward, out of touch, and even inherently bigoted. In other words, their cherished values and norms are now sources of cultural shame.

For many on the right, these shifting cultural norms and celebrations of diversity and non-traditional family structures in movies and television represent a personal affront. They see the broader culture’s caricature of their way of life as an assault on their honor and dignity.

The Tea Party Movement: Core Beliefs and Ideas

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  • What drives right-wing politics in America
  • How a lack of empathy is increasing the partisan divide
  • Why Republican politicians remain popular even if their policies don't help their voters

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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