Nostalgia fuels tea party effort

The results of the electoral activity of the past few weeks have both shocked some mainstream politicians and made it clear that the nascent “tea party” movement cannot be dismissed simply as a fringe group. In a number of primary elections, including the Republican senatorial primary in Delaware, mainstream Republican candidates were defeated and newcomers, often with the backing of tea party members and former governor Sarah Palin were victorious.

If these results came as a surprise to party officials and traditional party members, they should not have. The tea party movement has been gaining strength every month since last spring. It is not, by any means, a major national political force and may well never be. On the other hand, it has gained support among some members of Congress who have now begun a tea party caucus and, obviously, it resonates with enough voters, particularly disaffected Republican voters to influence primary elections. It also has a charismatic spokeswoman in Palin and a popular media star supporter in Glenn Beck.

Leaders of the tea party movement have shied away from calling themselves a political party and have not yet attempted to get a line on most ballots, but that it has become a well-financed political movement is now undeniable. It is a political force both parties must reckon with.

But there is a problem for the tea partiers. As yet, the movement has not found some member to enunciate a clear and coherent philosophy. Much of the rhetoric — very effective rhetoric — is a call to nostalgia for an earlier period in American history when our “freedoms” were greater. Some tea partiers even dress in colonial garb. The very name of the movement evokes American efforts to cast off the British yoke.

But nostalgia is not a political philosophy nor does it make for an effective electoral platform. Further, from what I’ve seen, much tea party nostalgia is not for history as it was, but for a version of history produced by radio commentators who incorporate into their historical narrative what they want history to have been rather than what it was.

As it exists now, I think that the tea party movement is quite fascinating and may well reflect a new populist wave in American politics. But nostalgia and bad history will not sustain a serious political effort. If the movement is to have lasting impact, it must find serious, thoughtful leaders capable of formulating and disseminating a coherent political philosophy. Whether that will happen, remains to be seen.

— Mike Hoeflich, a distinguished professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the Journal-World. Read his “Grumpy Professor” blog at