If you Google the incomplete phrase "Are tea partiers," the first suggestion that pops up is: "Are tea partiers racist?" The second is: "Are tea partiers libertarian?" Considering that those suggestions pop up based on the number of times people enter them in the search box, the question of the connection between Libertarianism and the Tea Party movement is clearly a prominent one among Americans.
It seems that in mainstream society, there is quite a bit of confusion about this. I have had people tell me personally that they believe the Tea Party movement is just a "rebranding" of the Libertarian movement. I was thinking about this today, and decided it might be instructive to write a brief post about it.
In a word, the Tea Party is not Libertarianism rebranded. In fact, if you want to think of the Tea Party as a rebranding of something, it is most simply a rebranding of Republicanism.
In a nutshell, the thing that has always differentiated Libertarians from Republicans or Democrats is that their party is a true amalgam of traditional conservative values and traditional liberal values. Put simply, Libertarians are known for being fiscally conservative (low taxes, limited government involvement in the private sector), and socially liberal (individual freedoms and civil liberties). Their overarching desire it to see a truly "small government" - one that pretty much stays out of your job and out of your home.
As such, Libertarians have always been supporters of typically conservative ideals like low taxes and very limited government spending. They support balanced federal budgets, free market capitalism, and greatly reduced interference by the federal government in the business sector. They have also long supported a greatly reduced military budget and military presence around the world, and have generally been considered "isolationist" from a military standpoint. For a Libertarian, the U.S. has no business engaging in military nation building or foreign military intervention.
In keeping with their "small government" ideals, they also support typically liberal notions about government involvement in people's private lives. For instance, they have long supported abortion rights and gay rights, including gay marriage rights, the legalization of things like prostitution and certain drugs - especially marijuana - physician-assisted suicide and other end-of-life considerations, and have even lobbied for changes to statutory rape laws, allowing minors and their legal guardians to determine the appropriate age for a minor to begin having sex. They also believe very strongly in a "wall of separation" between Church and State - in other words, keep God out of government. In short, they believe in personal rights, privileges, and responsibilities. This goes hand in hand with their commitment to a truly limited federal government.
The Tea Party, on the other hand, has nothing at all in common with this second aspect of traditional Libertarian values. To begin with, many Tea Party groups are strong supporters of blurring the lines of Church and State. One Tea Party website I visited (teaparty.org/about.php) explicitly says that America is a "Christian nation" and goes on to say that: "The Tea Party dream includes all who possess a strong belief in the foundational Judaic/Christian values embedded in our great founding documents." This same site explicitly states, among their 15 "non-negotiable core beliefs," that the U.S. must have a "stronger military." Clearly these are not Liberatarians.
In addition to this, and much more significantly, the Tea Party supports limited government from a government spending standpoint (low taxes, decreased federal budget, decreased government presence in the business sector), but has no problem at all with government telling you who you can and can't marry, what you can and can't do when you are pregnant, and who you can or can't have sex with when you are 17. They have no problem controlling what patients and their physicians do in end-of-life scenarios, and they are not concerned with the government telling people what they can or can't smoke, or under what conditions two consenting adults can or can't have sex. In short, the Tea Party consists of people who are fiscally conservative and socially conservative.
This doesn't make them Libertarians, it makes them conservative Republicans.