Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Politics: Fear and Why the Tea Party Will Fade Away

What is really driving the Tea Party?

The Tea Party is on a hot streak lately what with the Republican primary victories of Rand Paul in Kentucky and Sharron Angle in Nevada. And the talk among many is that the Tea Party will have a transformative impact on the upcoming midterm elections and be an enduring force in American politics for years to come.

The Tea Party movement is typically viewed as a populist uprising fueled by ideological anger against a federal government that many believe no longer represents needs and wishes of the American people. It protests the policies of our government that, according to their doctrines, restrict individual liberty, violate the Constitution, illegally regulate the economy, and unfairly tax citizens. The Tea Party believes that America has been taken away from it, thus its de facto motto is "Take back America."

The stereotype of Tea Partiers, reinforced by the many misspelled placards seen at the protests, is uneducated, of low income, and Southern. Yet polls show that the typical Tea Party supporter is, yes, white, but also older, educated, and of above-average income. This surprising demographic has led me to a decidedly contrarian analysis of the source of the Tea Party's energy and its future role in American politics.

I would argue that the Tea Party will have a diminishing impact on our political scene in the coming years. In fact, I believe that the Tea Party will have a only a minor influence on the midterm elections (and that influence will benefit the Democrats) and a lingering presence on the political scene for a few years. But I predict that the Tea Party will slowly but steadily fade into nonexistence over the next decade. (Disclaimer: Predictions are admittedly easy to make because, as we know from the National Enquirer and professional sports drafts, no one ever follows up to see if the predictions come true).

I offer this prediction because I believe that the birth and popularity of the Tea Party is based more in psychology than in political beliefs.

Most people think of anger when they describe the Tea Party. But it's not, in my view, what drives the movement. Anger is actually a defensive and protective response triggered by the fight-or-flight reaction which has evolved since we rose out of the primordial muck so many eons ago. Its purpose? To ensure our survival when threatened. And, with so much cultural uncertainty, economic instability, and political conflict in the world, many Americans feel profoundly threatened. So what underlies the anger expressed so strongly by Tea Partiers is fear.

What then is that fear?

Let's return to the demographic of the Tea Party: white, older, educated, and of higher income. Think about the world in which they were raised and had lived most of their lives. It was safe, secure, familiar, and, yes, homogeneous. They collectively held the power and had the loudest voice. They were in charge.

Now look at what is happening to their world; it is changing dramatically in so many ways. Tea Party members are confronted with a new world order that is understandably unsettling to them. 9/11 created a world that is now, at least in the eyes of many, more dangerous and unpredictable than ever before. Immigration and increased diversity that had not been that evident in the stratum in which they lived for most of their lives is now in their neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces. The serial economic crises of the past decade have caused a degree of financial insecurity that threatens their futures. And this changing world is no more obvious than in the new resident of the White House.

Tea Party supporters no longer have exclusive power. Their voices carry less sway than they once did. They have less control over their own lives and the world in which they have been living for so many years.

Now let's return to the Tea Party motto, "Take back America." Many people interpret it to mean take it back from those who have taken it from them, most obviously immigrants and people of color (thus the cries of racism). But I believe what lies at the heart of their message is their nostalgic wish to take America back to that previous time when life was simpler and more familiar, secure, and controllable, when they had no need to be fearful.

Another fear that I believe underlies the anger that the Tea Party movement expresses toward our government is that no one can protect them from the significant and ongoing upheavals that we have been experiencing during the last decade. Ordinary people have and continue to suffer mightily from multiple financial crises, and, most recently, the West Virginia mine tragedy and the BP disaster. Americans have always trusted their government to protect them from such harm (and it did a pretty good job for a long time), yet it has failed repeatedly in recent times. Never mind that Big Business, not our government, was responsible for these catastrophic events. The Tea Partiers don't expect Big Business to care about them, much less act in their best interests, so they don't hold them accountable. But our government is supposed to care about us and act in our best interests, yet it has let us down. So that fear turned to anger toward our government because it is better to feel rage and fight than to feel fear and flight.

These observations bring me back to my original thesis that the Tea Party will slowly fade away. Why? Because the generation of these Tea Partiers is aging and will be infirm or dead within 20 years. And the next generations will not be gripped with such fear of the changing world because they know no other world. They have been raised in this diverse, uncertain, and pretty crazy world. All of the changes are simply life as they know it, so there is nothing to fear. And with that absence of fear, the Tea Party will lose its purpose and energy and become simply an interesting yet short-lived footnote in American political history.

At least that's my prediction. Some will agree with me and others will disagree. But no one will know for sure until history tells us.