“A Narrative of Impending Tyranny”: Ideological Extremism and Internet Use in the Tea Party Movement

“A Narrative of Impending Tyranny”: Ideological Extremism and Internet Use in the Tea Party Movement

Antonio Pineda (University of Seville, Spain) and Bianca Sánchez-Gutiérrez (University of Seville, Spain)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3119-8.ch017


Communication and the media count among the means political movements employ in order to influence public opinion. This chapter focuses on the use of internet communication by the Tea Party, a radical movement that re-energized the American right-wing. The authors aim to shed light on the ideological discourse of the Tea Party and its strategic use of online media. The analysis of the Tea Party's discourse is performed in light of the specific ideological tenets and the reactionary narrative that inspire the movement. The study indicates that a consistently “on-message” anti-government libertarianism has found a new outlet on the internet.
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History And Ideology Of The Tea Party

The Tea Party is a populist, extreme right-wing political movement born in the United States in 2009. It originally emerged as a grassroots movement and consists of an agglomeration of hundreds of decentralized groups, many of them local and leaderless (Drum, 2010; NEWSWEEK STAFF [/ Kay], 2010). In addition to public rallies and protests, and abundant communicative and organizational activity on the Internet, the TPM “engages regularly with the political system through lobbying and electioneering” (Agarwal et al., 2014, p. 329).

Historically, the TPM arose as a reaction to the government bailout of 2009 (Agarwal et al., 2014, p. 329). In fact, the birth of TPM is usually dated February 19, 2009, when CNBC commentator Rick Santelli launched into a rant against President Barack Obama and his mortgage bailout policy from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange: “This is America. How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage, that has an extra bathroom, and can’t pay their bills? Raise their hand! President Obama, are you listening?”, exhorted the television commentator surrounded by brokers who cheered him on. Santelli also made a comment that would name the movement: “we’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July. All you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I’m going to start organizing” (as cited in Williamson, Skocpol, & Coggin, 2011, p. 37). However, it is possible to date the origin of the movement to an even earlier time; exactly three days before Santelli’s rant, when Seattle bloggers organized a demonstration on February 16, 2009. On February 27, 53 tea parties took place around the US, in which approximately 30,000 people participated (Southern Belle, 2011). These demonstrations and events were the first of many that would come later, including, most notably the national protests that took place on 15 April 2009, to coincide with ‘Tax Day’.

The Tea Party mobilized very quickly: in 2010, the Washington Post identified at least 650 groups (Roth, 2018, p. 541), and that same year the first national convention of the movement would take place in Nashville, Tennessee. This occurs in the context of what could be considered the most politically influential phase of the TPM: the period 2010-2012 (Judis, 2013). According to an April 2010 survey, 5 million people attended Tea Party rallies (Drum, 2010); that same year, the candidates identified with the movement began to win primary elections against Republican candidates of the establishment (Roth, 2018, p. 541), reaping electoral victories such as the triumph of the libertarian Rand Paul in the Republican primary for the Senate in Kentucky (Fox News, 2010).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Tea Party Movement: Populist extreme right-wing political movement born in the United States in 2009 and ideologically focused on reducing government intervention in the economy.

Libertarianism: Political ideology characterized by the freedom of the individual as supreme value, the reduction or elimination of state intervention in the economy and society, and free market capitalism.

On-Message Strategy: Strategic approach (typical of political campaigns) based on the stipulation and repetition of a single theme that must remain consistent throughout the campaign, and that must be reinforced by each individual communication.

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