Put simply, the tea party stands for a reversal of the gains of the last century. If wanting to slow or stop social change makes one a conservative, then the tea party is made up of reactionaries. They actually want to reverse social change.
During the last century, popular opinion in the US changed in terms of attitudes towards consumer credit and consumption in general, government intervention into the economy, management of the economy and organizations, and government programs that lessened capitalism’s tendency to extremes – extreme wealth and extreme poverty.
It is worth remembering that life was worse when the absence of a welfare state made poverty a death sentence. And it is not true that when the stakes were higher - when people died for want rather than were merely destitute - that unemployment or poverty were lower.
We've tried the world that the tea party promises. You can read it about it in history books that document life 100+ years ago. You can experience it by going to foreign countries where poverty is widespread and where the social safety net and regulations are largely nonexistent.
Next time you are reading about the tea party or talking with a friend who admires them, ask how what they're proposing - from doing away with unions and the Federal Reserve and banking regulations to privatizing education and eradicating welfare - is any different than the world we had in, say, 1890. And then ask them to list all the ways in which life was better 100 years ago when their policies ruled. It could make for an interesting conversation.