Five short years later, "Tea Party" has become synonymous with "ultra conservative Republicans" and obstructionist government. It shouldn't be. At least the concerned citizens who launched the Tea Party movement shouldn't be thought of that way. The name became co-opted by Washington, the way anything of real value and power tends to be. Various groups, unconnected to the grassroots Tea Party movement, were created in their name. Now these groups attempt to lay claim not only to the Tea Party title, but also mantle of conservatism, even attempting to define who is a "real" Republican. The groups do not represent Republicans. They don't represent conservative thought. They don't even represent the ideals of the original Tea Party movement. They represent the interests of those running the groups. Nothing more, nothing less. The irony of a national group claiming to represent Tea Party interests is that the power of the movement came from its beliefs in decentralized authority.
Concerns about high taxes, spending, debt, burdensome regulation, and government responsiveness have not faded. If anything, they are more broadly shared than ever before. Because of their sway among young voters, these issues are likely to remain an important part of the political conversation for a generation. Polls show millennials to be more conservative on these issues than their elders. Younger voters are increasingly disconnected from and mistrustful of traditional social institutions especially government, political parties, the church, or local civic associations. Smaller, less involved government is "in."
So, while the organizing ideals of the Tea Party are an important and growing part of the country's fiscal policy conversation, the movement's brand has been marginalized because of the very groups that claim to champion it. Freedom Works, the Senate Conservatives Fund, Club for Growth, the Madison Project and others claim to represent "conservatives" and the "Tea Party" and frequently substitute the terms with their own brands interchangeably to suit their purposes. For example, when Sen. Mitch McConnell said that Senate Conservatives Fund candidates were being "crushed" all around the country, the internet lit up with deceptive emails, press releases and blog posts that McConnell wanted to "crush conservatives" around the country. Whenever these groups or their tactics face criticism, they quickly protest that "conservatives are under attack" though the "attackers" are almost inevitably political figures who have championed conservative ideology their entire career.
These groups have adopted the same tactic as some unions but in an even more guileless way. When the National Education Association is criticized, they respond as if the criticism were made against every teacher in the country. These groups that have taken on the name of the Tea Party are even more nefarious, because at least teachers choose to be members of the NEA, these groups have designated THEMSELVES as representatives of conservative thought. With fewer and fewer voters identifying as Tea Party supporters, even while the issues that inspired the movement increase in prominence, these groups have clearly set back the very ideals they claim to champion.
The lesson is largely semantics, but the semantics are important as we look at the 2014 elections and talk about the candidates and voters involved. The "Tea Party" as we currently think of it is no longer representative of the voters that created it. And it certainly isn't representative of the mantle of "conservatism" in any rational sense of the word. These groups claim that designation but it is for their own benefit, not for any ideology and not for any grassroots voter movement. When the business community positions itself in support or opposition to candidates, we must remember that there are thousands and thousands of "true" Tea Party voters that are focused on the same fiscal issues important to growing prosperity. It's a shame their brand has been stolen by those who have so misused it.