Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Political Science


Frances Piven

Subject Categories

History | Political Science


American History, American Politics, Conservatism, Nativism, Southern United States, Tea Party


The Tea Party movement has been a keyword in American politics since its inception in 2009. Widely regarded as having helped the Republican Party to engineer a comeback during the elections of 2010, the Tea Party movement offered the American public a Republican agenda that was distinguishable from the Bush era by limiting its talking points to issues such as fiscal discipline and budget deficit. However, fact that the image of Republicans changed because of the Tea Party presence and the Republican focus on fiscal issues leaves whether the Republican agenda as influenced by Tea Partiers changed much in substance from the Bush era a very open question. In this regard, I argue in this paper that the Tea Party movement should be seen as a modern incarnation of the recurrent streak of nativism in the United States, whose early forms included the Anti-Masonic movement, the "Know-Nothing" ("American") Party of 1856, and was succeeded by modern political movements such as the second Ku Klux Klan, the John Birch Society, "the religious right" of the late 20th Century and the Tea Party movement.

The Tea Party movement's nature as a modern incarnation of nativism would be made clear in a number of traits shown by the movement and its supporters, including their tendency to view themselves as the true "Americans" while viewing the opposition as those conspiring against the United States. This trait, as will be observed, will result in the Tea Party movement possessing a rigid, dogmatic nature that made it incapable of making a compromise. The Tea Party movement would have develop an embittered relationship with the Republican leadership largely due to its unwillingness to compromise even with its own camp. This tension would heighten during the Republican primaries in 2010 and 2012, when Tea Party favorites such as Mike Lee, Joe Miller and Christine O'Donnell defeating the more established Republican figures, and culminate during the primaries of 2013 when business interests funded establishment figure Bradley Byrne over Tea Party favorite Dean Young, and Tea Party-backed Ken Cuccinelli lost the Virginia gubernatorial election to Democrat Terry McAuliffe after having been badly outfunded by McAuliffe throughout the campaign. Conservative business organizations such as the United States Chamber of Commerce heavily contributed to Byrne's campaign, reflecting the business interests' souring relationship with the Tea Party movement.

The setbacks in 2013 notwithstanding, Tea Party favorite Dave Brat's upset victory over House Majority leader Eric Cantor led to speculation that the Tea Party movement was, after all, on a comeback trail. In this paper, I specifically argue against such a position given the facts that 1) Brat's victory will likely do little to alter the American public's perception of the Tea Party movement, which has been consistently highly unfavorable, 2) Nor is Brat's victory, which took place in a Republican primary in a solidly conservative district, likely to change the big picture in national or even statewide context, and 3) it is doubtful if Cantor's defeat does much to change the business interests' contribution to the Republican candidates running against a Tea Party candidate in primaries (in any event, Cantor's defeat would make businesses more vigilant in countering Tea Party insurgencies), and 4) the changing demographics in the United States indicates that nativist politics as practiced by the Tea Party movement will have less appeal in the United States as a whole as time progresses. In conclusion, I will argue that the Tea Party movement's nature as a modern incarnation of nativism, while having made it a powerful movement within a short period of time, has made it largely incapable reaching a compromise with not just the opposition but also the Republicans, thereby convincing established figures within the Republican Party that it was more of a liability than an asset for the Republicans as a whole.