Even before Barack Obama was inaugurated as president on January 20, 2009 the talk boards of several websites frequented by conservative voters were already humming with angry conversations about the global economic meltdown. Why were the banks being bailed out, correspondents wanted to know, why were billions of their tax money being spent on government programmes?
Karl Denninger of the investment site Market Ticker said, “I saw everybody fawning over Obama with the inauguration and yet here he was appointing people like Larry Summer and Tim Geithner to his team who were all part of creating the problem,” he said.
Stephanie Jasky, a Detroit paralegal, was one of the angry voices on Market Ticker. She and her husband had a business fixing up and selling houses, and they were hit when the housing market collapsed. “I was looking for answers — I wanted to know what had happened. The more I looked the more it became clear to me that the problem was our government, that the government had become the criminal.”
The chat boards started to fill with calls to protest. But what was the best way to express anger? Somebody suggested posting tea bags to their elected representatives in Congress as a form of protest. Jasky leapt on the idea.
“All these bailouts and stimulus packages, that was taking our money and spending it without our permission. Taxation without representation. We thought, didn't that happen to us in the Revolutionary wars? Hello! Anyone remember King George?”
Jasky bought an box of tea bags and posted one to every member of Congress. Other people did too. The practice spread so much so that by the time that CNBC reporter Rick Santelli made his famous rant on February 19, 2009, he did so standing in front of Chicago traders who all had tea bags stuck to their computer screens and phone banks.
Should the tea party movement prove a lasting phenomenon, the Santelli rant will go down in history as one of its main birth pangs. In his rant he accused the Obama administration of “promoting bad behaviour” and subsidising “losers' mortgages”. His criticisms evoked a huge cheer from the traders behind him, particularly when he said: “We're thinking of having a Chicago tea party in July, I'm thinking of organising it.”
The two-minute diatribe quickly went global. Angry voters began to respond to Santelli's call and set up their own tea party groups linked loosely through the internet. It all happened with tremendous speed. Within 10 days of the rant, on February 27, the first Tea Party rally was held in Washington, Chicago and other cities across the US.
The tea party phenomenon had been born.