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The Tea Party

A Brief History

The Tea Party burst on the national political scene in 2009–2010, powered by right-wing grassroots passion and Astroturf big money. Its effect on electoral politics and the political process is undeniable, but the message, aims, and staying power of the loosely organized groups seem less clear. In this concise book, American political historian Ronald P. Formisano probes the remarkable rise of the Tea Party movement during a time of economic crisis and cultural change and examines its powerful impact on American politics.

A confederation of intersecting and overlapping organizations, with a strong connection to the Christian fundamentalist Right, the phenomenon could easily be called the Tea Parties. The American media’s fascination with the Tea Party—and the tendency of political leaders who have embraced the movement to say and do outlandish things—not only has fueled the fire driving the movement, but has diverted attention from its roots, agenda, and the enormous influence it holds over the Republican Party and the American political agenda. Looking at the Tea Party's claims to historical precedent and patriotic values, Formisano locates its anti-state and libertarian impulses deep in American political culture as well as in voter frustrations that have boiled over in recent decades. He sorts through the disparate goals the movement’s different factions espouse and shows that, ultimately, the contradictions of Tea Party libertarianism reflect those ingrained in the broad mass of the electorate.

Throughout American history, third parties, pressure groups, and social movements have emerged to demand reforms or radical change, only to eventually fade away, even if parts of their programs often are later adopted. The Tea Party’s impact as a pressure group has been more immediate. Whether the Tea Party endures remains to be seen. Formisano’s brief history certainly gives us clues.

About the Author

Ronald P. Formisano is the William T. Bryan Chair of American History at the University of Kentucky. His most recent book is For the People: American Populist Movements from the Revolution to the 1850s.


Formisano merits attention for providing even-handed perspective on and clarifying misconceptions about America’s recent political phenomenon... The author makes valuable clarifications: the Tea Party and the religious right are not synonymous, and there are factional disputes... His most trenchant observation might have emerged from a Pirandello play: 'Its partisans and critics alike, as if reading tea leaves, often see in it what they wish to see.' within.

- Publishers Weekly

Formisano examines the conditions that gave birth to the Tea Party and whether it is genuinely grassroots or directed by corporate interests and billionaires. A helpful primer on a movement that is changing the American political landscape.

- Vanessa Bush - Booklist

Written in a brisk, journalistic fashion, this informative book is an excellent snapshot of the Tea Party as it seeks to make further inroads in the political arena.

- Library Journal

Formisano is a highly respected authority on the history of populist movements. In an evenhanded way he writes of the origins of the Tea Party or Tea Parties (there are many competing factions), in resentments against so-called 'elites,' and various alliances and rejections at the grass roots.

- Lexington Herald-Leader

One of the most orderly presentations of this recent history I have read... Take a few hours in the waning days of summer to read The Tea Party: A Brief History so that you can explain to your students why the Paul Ryan candidacy is history in the making.

- Claire Potter - Tenured Radical, Chronicle of Higher Education

A fine and easy introduction to a brand new party and its concepts, recommended for any general collection strong in American history and politics.

- Midwest Book Review

A succinct but enlightening history of the Tea Party in the US.

- Choice


Ron Formisano dons a pair of fine historical lenses to read the tea leaves of the reactionary populism that has become an undeniable political force in 21st-century America. This is a lucid and intelligently constructed primer on the coalition of Americans longing and lobbying for (far too) simple answers to complicated questions. He gets it just right.

- Ellen Goodman

Formisano offers more than a mere primer to the Tea Party's history, In addition to looking behind the movement's founding myths, he establishes interesting links between Christian conservatives' biblical fundamentalism and the constitutional originalism espoused by many Tea Partiers.

- Claudia Franziska Bruehwiler - Political Studies Review
Johns Hopkins University Press
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