Barack Obama had been president for only a few months when the Tea Party roared onto the American political scene. Conservative activists rallied and organized by the hundreds of thousands against his economic stimulus plan and health care reforms. Their efforts torqued the Republican Party rightward and powered its gains in the 2010 midterm election.
Eight years later, Donald J. Trump faced a similar grass-roots opposition. The liberal “resistance” protested and organized in thousands of volunteer-led local groups, helping sink Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and helping Democrats retake the House of Representatives in 2018.
Yet more than halfway through President Biden’s first year in office, there is little sign of a mass movement mobilizing against him or his policies. Even as the administration calls for trillions of dollars in federal spending, no second coming of the Tea Party has taken root. And the protests by conservatives that have taken place — although sometimes aggressive in new ways — have largely targeted an array of political and cultural issues rather than Mr. Biden himself.
“Yeah, we go out, we oppose some of Biden’s policies, we disagree,” said Debbie Dooley, an Atlanta-based activist who helped found the Tea Party in 2009. “But you don’t see great protests out there.”
The number of conservative demonstrations nationwide since the Biden inauguration remains a fraction of the volume of liberal demonstrations that followed the Trump inauguration in 2017, according to data collected by the Crowd Counting Consortium, a public interest and scholarly project directed by the researchers Erica Chenoweth of Harvard and Jeremy Pressman of the University of Connecticut.
Where left-of-center demonstrations made up three-quarters of all demonstrations in the United States during the six months after Mr. Trump entered office, conservative demonstrations account for just 10 percent of the total since Mr. Biden did (protests against racism and policing have accounted for the majority). And at only a few dozen of them have protesters explicitly criticized Mr. Biden, according to the crowd counts, in contrast to the hundreds of Obama-critical Tea Party events held by the summer of 2009.
Understand the Infrastructure Bill
- One trillion dollar package passed. The Senate passed a sweeping bipartisan infrastructure package on Aug. 10, capping weeks of intense negotiations and debate over the largest federal investment in the nation’s aging public works system in more than a decade.
- The final vote. The final tally in the Senate was 69 in favor to 30 against. The legislation, which still must pass the House, would touch nearly every facet of the American economy and fortify the nation’s response to the warming of the planet.
- Main areas of spending. Overall, the bipartisan plan focuses spending on transportation, utilities and pollution cleanup.
- Transportation. About $110 billion would go to roads, bridges and other transportation projects; $25 billion for airports; and $66 billion for railways, giving Amtrak the most funding it has received since it was founded in 1971.
- Utilities. Senators have also included $65 billion meant to connect hard-to-reach rural communities to high-speed internet and help sign up low-income city dwellers who cannot afford it, and $8 billion for Western water infrastructure.
- Pollution cleanup: Roughly $21 billion would go to cleaning up abandoned wells and mines, and Superfund sites.
Why has Mr. Biden — at least so far — escaped the sort of grass-roots ferment that dogged his two immediate predecessors?
One possibility is that he’s simply perceived as less antagonizing. The Tea Party was driven more by anxiety and resentment over a demographically changing country that had just elected its first Black president, most political scientists agree, than by fiscal conservatism.
“I don’t think it was just Obama personally; it was what he represented,” said Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist who has studied both the Tea Party and the anti-Trump resistance. “It’s the sense that people that don’t seem like America to you are taking charge.”
As a white man, Mr. Biden attracts less of this racialized backlash. And where Mr. Trump’s personal behavior and pugnacious political style stoked liberal activists’ outrage, Mr. Biden’s lower-key, more moderate reputation may offer less of a target.
“It’s not been as easy to fuel a sort of second Tea Party with him in the White House simply because he doesn’t upset people as much,” said Seth Masket, who directs the University of Denver’s Center on American Politics and wrote a book about why Mr. Biden won last year’s Democratic primary.
Mr. Biden’s agenda offers another possibility. Polls consistently show that his pandemic relief package and infrastructure plans are viewed more favorably than Mr. Obama’s 2009 stimulus and the Affordable Care Act ever were, and more favorably than Mr. Trump’s A.C.A. repeal plans and 2017 tax law. All four of those bills sparked grass-roots opposition.
But a president who dampens rather than stokes grass-roots furor is only part of the answer. The subjects conservatives have been protesting about over the past six months suggest other reasons for the missing anti-Biden Tea Party.
One of them is the pandemic. Protests against public health restrictions, masks and Covid vaccines account for a large number of conservative demonstrations since Mr. Biden’s inauguration, according to data collected by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a nonprofit group that tracks demonstration events in more than 190 countries and territories. In many cases, those demonstrations have criticized governors, employers and public health officials rather than Mr. Biden.
The pandemic — coupled with large deficit spending under Mr. Trump — may also have shielded Mr. Biden’s ambitious agenda from the sort of conservative criticism that greeted government spending in 2009.
“We’re still concerned about a lot of the fiscal issues,” said Ms. Dooley, the Tea Party activist. “But then Covid struck, and that just turned everything upside down because you’ve got people out there that are hurting and you’ve got to help them.”
The transformation of the Republican Party since 2009 offers another possible explanation. The rise of the Tea Party “marked the beginning of a mainstreaming of right-wing resentment politics” that helped pave the way for Mr. Trump’s presidency, said Rachel Blum, a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma.
Its very success in remaking the G.O.P. might have made a new grass-roots resurgence on the right unnecessary. “There doesn’t need to be another Tea Party because Trumpism is the downstream” representation of it, Professor Skocpol said. “Trump is leading himself, front and center, a much more personality-centered embodiment of the same urges.” Where Mr. Obama commanded activist attention in 2009, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project has documented more than four times as many pro-Trump demonstrations as anti-Biden ones through July 20.
In some cases, Mr. Trump’s influence has fueled opposition to fellow Republicans rather than against Democrats. “A lot of the anger is focused on Republicans that betrayed Trump, that threw Trump under the bus,” Ms. Dooley said, mentioning Representative Liz Cheney, Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia and the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell. “That’s what a lot of people are focused on versus 2009.”
Trump-aligned Republicans are certainly emulating the Tea Party in some ways: transforming local party committees, taking over school boards and running for office. A recent surge of protests against critical race theory has drawn comparisons to the Tea Party, although the number of demonstrations so far has been far smaller.
Not having a Biden-era version of the Tea Party may not hurt Republicans much politically. The party needs to flip only a handful of seats next year to retake Congress. Biden’s approval rating has fallen in recent weeks, and the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan may depress it further. And a broad grass-roots backlash could emerge if Mr. Biden’s legislative agenda becomes less popular.
It’s also possible that the Trump era has changed the tactics and goals of conservative organizing. Although some Tea Party events featured guns and violent language, the movement influenced the political process largely by protesting, pressuring lawmakers on legislative issues and voting. By contrast, some Trump-supporting activists have resorted to implicit threats (like armed anti-lockdown demonstrations), conspiracy theories (like QAnon and false claims about the 2020 election) or outright violence (like the Jan. 6 attack on Congress).
“The messaging is very much not about” using the traditional tools of grass-roots organizing, “like going to town hall meetings and contacting your elected officials,” said Dana Fisher, a University of Maryland sociologist. “This is more like intimidating your elected officials by packing assault rifles.”
Far-right militant groups whose members participated in the Capitol attack, like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, have taken part in more than 300 events (some peaceful) in the six-month period after Mr. Biden’s inauguration, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. And sizable shares of Republicans have downplayed or excused the events of Jan. 6. In a Quinnipiac poll this month, 75 percent of them said it was “time to move on.” More than half of Trump voters described the riot as “patriotism” and “defending freedom” in a July CBS News/YouGov poll.
In some cases, the Tea Party has embodied this shift. One of its founding organizers spoke at the rally that preceded the Capitol attack. Local Tea Party groups that remain active have embraced Mr. Trump’s election lies, Professor Skocpol said. And groups like FreedomWorks and the political arm of the Heritage Foundation, which boosted the Tea Party movement, are now pushing restrictive voting laws.
That suggests that when the next sustained conservative grass-roots movement does erupt, Mr. Biden may not be its focus — and it may not look much like the Tea Party. “We’re in uncharted waters in a lot of ways,” Professor Fisher said. “I’m not sure what we’re going to get.”