American culture is complex, but most can agree that America is a culture of self-reliance and self-determination. These ingrained values are closely linked to past political movements. From the Women’s Suffrage Movement to the Civil Rights Movement, their origins can be traced to a clash between the political system and Americans’ most deeply held values.
Today we are witnessing the rise of another movement, the Tea Party, and its foundation is no less cultural. A point that’s often missed in the unending dissection of Tea Party motivations is that the movement is more inherently cultural in origin than political. Tea Partiers feel a political class is dictating that they should be submissive citizens — such orders directly conflict with the distinctly American values of independence and self-sufficiency. Tea Partiers became political because they didn’t want a new culture imposed upon them.
Earlier this year, my colleagues at Sam Adams Alliance researched these cultural values, and learned that Tea Party leaders’ primary reason for getting involved with the movement was to “stand up for [their] beliefs.” Additionally, the report uncovered other shared values including a desire for empowerment and fulfillment, a sense of pride and faith, a worry for country, and an acute concern for posterity.
We understand that these values have primed their involvement in the movement, but how exactly is it playing out? In a Washington Post piece earlier this year, American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks describes a war raging between the cultures of free enterprise and big government, writing that there are “two competing visions of the country’s future.” In Brooks’ view, America’s future hinges on “a reliance on entrepreneurship and rewards determined by market forces” versus “European-style statism grounded in expanding bureaucracies, a managed economy and large-scale income redistribution.”
Tea Partiers and others on the free-enterprise side largely share this assessment of the cultural battlefield, and they have taken things one step further: they’ve been unprecedentedly prolific in the arts. Among other things, The Free Enterprise Nation has begun developing a music library compiling pro-liberty music and the producers behind EconStories.tv developed an original music video about economics that went on to receive nearly two million YouTube views and a Sammie award.
These artistic cultural expressions are at the foundation of something much bigger than a mere political group. This kind of behavior could be more aptly described as “Tea Culture.”
Recently, we examined this concept of Tea Culture in a research series we called Green Energy. We borrowed the term from the environmental movement to apply to the newness and enthusiasm behind the political and cultural grassroots activism in 2009–10. We found Tea Party activists’ strength is one that relies on cultural motivations, not temporary political gain. The groups that have flourished despite the onslaught of criticism are those that have fought to retain their autonomy or even differentiated into groups engaging specific issues of particular importance to their communities. For example, in a recent Washington Post article, Joe Lisante, the founder of Miami County Liberty near Dayton, Ohio, said his meetings “start with the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a prayer, and then a speaker and a skit — the most recent was about the bank bailout. The point is not to organize political action but to educate members and encourage them to become active on their own.” This is Tea Culture.
When we think about Tea Party groups from a cultural perspective, we realize that they more closely resemble civic institutions than political parties. Much in the way a church, social club, or professional organization fosters relationships between people, Tea Parties have helped to bring people together around shared interests. In addition, Tea Parties have effectively facilitated community involvement. But this leads to a problem: due to their effective civic action, external forces are attempting to co-opt the Tea Party organizations, further politicizing them. These attempts may lead the Tea Parties away from their cultural roots, seriously jeopardizing their effectiveness and longevity.
This damages what has been another distinctive characteristic of Tea Culture: its unbending practice of — and reverence for — decentralization. The Tea Party movement derives much of its strength from this decentralization. As illustrated in Rod Beckstrom’s The Starfish and the Spider, decentralized, leaderless organizations are stronger and more resilient than traditional, hierarchical organizations. The Tea Party has harnessed this strength to fend off attacks from various groups. So far it’s succeeded. But it’s succeeded due to its ingrained American values, not because of ties to a political position.
The Tea Party in 2010 will probably be most remembered for the results of the November 2 election. This will miss the point of what continues to be foremost a cultural movement. This is good news for the movement. As a cultural rather than political organization, there is a greater opportunity to form a broad-based, inclusive movement as it leaves open the potential to appeal to people across and — importantly for the Tea Party — beyond the confines of the political spectrum.
Chris Stolte is a research associate at Sam Adams Alliance.