The Judis analysis quickly won praise from the Cato Institute’s David Boaz, a big player in the libertarian movement.

There’s plenty for libertarians to argue with in Judis’s essay. But it’s an encouraging report for those who think it’s a good thing that millions of Americans are rallying to the cause of smaller government and lower spending. And certainly it’s the smartest, most historically grounded analysis of the Tea Party movement I’ve seen in the mainstream liberal media.

Of course, understanding the roots of the Tea Party movement isn’t enough to capture the moment. For starters, there’s also the question of just how closely aligned Rand Paul and the Tea Party movement really are.

Ron Paul, his father, tried to spin it wide last night, seeming to signal to Republican leaders that they shouldn’t dismiss the Kentucky vote as a fringe affair.

“When Rand talks about the Tea Party movement, it’s the same as saying, ‘Talk to the grass-roots people,’ ” Ron Paul said. “And ‘Get rid of the power people,’ the people who run the show, the people who think they are above everybody else. That’s what people are sick and tired of. That’s a message a lot of us have talked about for years and Rand has for about a year, and that’s why he’s done so well.”

The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder wrote convincingly of why it would be a mistake to go too far with the “Tea Party victory” meme.

But let’s be careful about giving this amorphous movement too much credit. Rand Paul first attracted attention in Kentucky because he was Rand Paul. Then he married his anti-government message to his father’s economic libertarian movement. He parried against an opponent, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who embodied the establishment. Nevermind that this establishment was doing everything in its power to thwart Barack Obama … politics doesn’t always make sense. But Paul was change. A specific kind of change. He was acceptable enough for frustrated conservative base voters. And he’s going to be a tough candidate for Democrats to beat in the fall.

Where Paul—and the Tea Party movement—go from here is an open question. It’s sure to get a lot of coverage. But readers need context, not just crowds at rallies. Well done to Judis for getting it started.

— Further Reading:

Coverage of Tea Parties Evolves With the Movement

10 Fictitious Tea Party Beliefs

Little-Known Club for Growth Group Causing Headaches for GOP


Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at holly.yeager@gmail.com.