As the Tea Party movement has already become the headline story of the upcoming midterm elections, it is helpful to remember how we got here in the first place.
"Tea Party"-themed tax revolts are not new, but the earlier efforts never came close to approaching the mass movement we are witnessing now. So what started it all? Well, there were certainly a number of factors in play at the time that they rose to prominence. But the mainstream media, and seemingly many Tea Partiers themselves, like to point to CNBC on-air editor Rick Santelli's "Rant of the Year" that took place on February 19, 2009.
Reporting from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Mr. Santelli had the following to say about the Homeowners Affordability and Stability Plan, a mortgage relief program announced by the Obama administration the day before:
There was already grassroots movements in their nascence at the time, but people like to say that this rant "sparked" the Tea Partiers into action, and gave them a catchy name.
This founding story is not without some contradictions. Tea Partiers tend to complain much more about the Troubled Asset Relief Program than they do about the mortgage relief act. They also focus in on the auto company bailouts. They see in these acts the unholy mixing of government and big business. If anything, the mortgage act gave them exactly what they want -- their tax dollars working for them, as opposed to corporate titans (the arch-libertarians among their ranks would still disapprove, of course).
Of course there are also some advantages to using Mr. Santelli's rant as a starting point for their shared narrative. The mortgage relief act was an Obama administration creation. TARP is much trickier to talk about, as it was enacted during the George W. Bush administration. Tea Partiers tend to blame Congress for its passage, but the fact it that was Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson who dreamed up much of the scheme. That's a wobbly issue to use as your origins myth.
Mr. Santelli's rant, on the other hand, came soon after Obama came into power, and therefore can be viewed as an early indictment of his regime. Moreover, the rant itself - with CME employees cheering him on - has an emotional force that tends to drown out the actual content. People see what they want to see in this rather stunning bit of television drama -- and, of course, they ignore the fact that Mr. Santelli is a product of the Wall Street they so despise.