On Political Books

March/April 2012 Stay for Tea

The real Tea Partiers are worth getting to know. Because they’re going to be here a while. And they might prove useful.

By Steven M. Teles

The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism
by Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson
Oxford University Press, 264 pp.

For the last three years, the Tea Party has been something of a Rorschach test for members of the nation’s political class. Some have looked at the citizens screaming about the Constitution at marches and town halls and thought they were witnessing the birth of homegrown fascism. Others have imagined that the overreaching of the Obama administration had given birth to a genuine grassroots movement for constitutional reform and limited government. Even as the din coming from the Tea Party has quieted slightly, the gap between these perceptions does not seem to have narrowed.

Noted Harvard political sociologist Theda Skocpol and her promising young graduate-student coauthor Vanessa Williamson spent months observing the Tea Party firsthand, attending meetings and rallies of Tea Party-affiliated groups in Virginia, Maine, Massachusetts, and Arizona and plunging themselves into all the studies available on the subject. Their findings have been published in a new book, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, a fascinating and clear-eyed analysis that lays out the decidedly imperfect understanding of the movement on both the right and the left.

“I think the pundit class tends to treat popular ideologies as products of ignorance,” Skocpol told the New York Times. “Rather than assume [their] ignorance, we should recognize that what appear to be contradictory or uninformed views of federal government programs make better sense once we understand how Tea Party activists view themselves in relation to other groups in society.” The left fails to see that the overwhelming majority of Tea Party activists are neither angry nor racist. They are generally quite normal people worried that the hour is very late for saving the values they hold dear: “They are asserting a desire to live again in the country they think they recall from childhood and young adulthood. Their anger evinces a determination to restore that remembered America, and pass it on to their children and grandchildren (whether or not they are asking for this gift).” The Tea Partiers are a peculiarly American merging of radical and right, in that they believe enormous change is necessary to reestablish a nation worth conserving.

Unlike many liberal analysts, Skocpol and Williamson show great sympathy for the ordinary activists of the movement: for their willingness to engage in the hard work of politics—attending meetings, learning the rules, doing your homework, banding together with your fellow citizens. But they have only scorn for the movement’s elites, who, they suggest, have filled the activists’ heads with “wildly inaccurate things … about what government does, how it is financed, and what is actually included (or not) in key pieces of legislation or regulation.”

Skocpol and Williamson found that these activists are not the puppets of the Koch family or Dick Armey. While they responded to a call they heard from places like Fox News, the organizations they have created are their own, built to last, and their autonomy jealously guarded. Local Tea Party groups have created genuine social connections and organizational capacity that will endure for years, and perhaps decades, to come, long after the spigot of Koch money dries up. Few grassroots activists actually see any donor largesse—their groups are generally self-funded, often through regular dues.

The right has also missed much in its celebration of the Tea Party. Tea Party activists are not a random slice of America—they are disproportionately older, white, middle-class people. And they are not nearly as deeply principled as the Washington-based think tanks and interest groups that have glommed on to them would like to believe. While Tea Partiers appeal to the old-time religion of limited government, they see no contradiction in simultaneously singing the praises of Social Security and Medicare, and much else government does as well.

How do Tea Party activists distinguish between proper and improper government functions? Not, say Skocpol and Williamson, on the basis of constitutional formalism or general philosophical categories, but on the perceived character and behavior of the recipients. Social Security and Medicare are fine, because they were “earned” through work and years of paying taxes, as compared to “other categories of people who have not worked to make their way in society and thus do not deserve taxpayer funded support.” Even immigration turns out to be a matter of perceived virtue—deserving and undeserving— rather than general principle, as in one activist’s observation that he’s concerned about the “bad illegals, not the ones trying to get a job painting or in your garden.”

In short, the fundamental principle of Tea Party activists is that government is fine when it’s helping people like them—hardworking, uncomplaining, non-mooching, self-restraining, religious (but not Muslim!), patriotic Americans—but it’s a threat when it’s helping people who are not like them. Screaming about the debt is really just the language Tea Party activists use to express their fear that the reins of government have been taken away from the people who actually make the society work, and given to a coalition of weirdos and parasites.

The Tea Party is also not, based on what Skocpol and Williamson found, particularly new. These are the same conservatives who have hovered on the edges of Republican politics since long before 2008, and not some sort of sudden libertarian eruption. They have a very strong evangelical faction, whose religious style has influenced the whole movement. The totemic status of the Constitution, the belief in its inerrancy, the ability of any well-meaning person to deduce its literal meaning and contemporary implications through a direct engagement with the text, are all instances of evangelical-influenced sacralization of the secular.

The blending of libertarian and religious conservatism that characterizes the Tea Party may be puzzling to liberals, but it seems natural to activists on the ground. Skocpol and Williamson witnessed a
“sharp bifurcation between generous, tolerant interaction within the group, and an almost total lack of empathy or sympathy for fellow Americans beyond the group.” The belief in natural rights, the contemporary relevance of the nation’s founding, and a deeply felt resentment of being exploited by the non-productive outweigh the more abstract differences that religious Tea Partiers have with libertarians.

The willingness of religious and libertarian conservatives to cooperate with one another is as old as the “fusionism” that Frank Meyer and William F. Buckley wove at the National Review. What is new about the Tea Party, Skocpol and Williamson argue, is organizational, not ideological. In particular, the Tea Party has given Washington-based, generally libertarian organizations like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute a grassroots base that they have heretofore lacked. While in the past conservative funders had to resign themselves to supporting think tanks and interest groups that spoke mainly to Republican officeholders (and each other), the surging Tea Party has provided them an organized network of activists out in the field. In a fascinating paradox, however, the strength of this relationship comes precisely from the distance between the Republican Party’s preexisting elites and its newly active grass roots.

Steven M. Teles is associate professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University and the author most recently of The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement.


  • janinsanfran on March 27, 2012 12:07 PM:

    It seems to me that the real question is whether these folks wallowing in their bitter nostalgia for an unrecoverable past die off before they sink the ship of state.

    National commentators would be smart to pay attention to the California experience. We got over the hump; Republicans are a 30 percent rump. But the machinery of government is damaged and it will take a generation at least to repair.

  • tcinaz on March 27, 2012 7:37 PM:

    So it turns out the the Tea Party is what we always thought, a rebranding of the people who voted for George W. Bush twice. They could not believe they made a huge mistake the first time, repeated the mistake a second, and now pretend they really are something new and different. But, they are the same people who voted for Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Their inability to recognize their own cognitive dissonance is what creates their anger at the system. They want strongly principled leaders but elected Nixon when they were younger, only to grow more bitter at the disconnect between their expectations and the actual outcomes of their repeated election of leaders who lacked a serious commitment to their core belief: that they should be protected from any assault by a cruel world full of people who do not think like or agree with them.

  • Sean Scallon on March 27, 2012 7:43 PM:

    At some point you have to say what you are for as much what you are against, otherwise you'll burn out when the rage dies down. Unfortunately if the Tea Partiers did that, they would splinter into a million factions. That's their Catch-22.

  • bluestatedon on March 28, 2012 7:38 AM:

    "Rather than assume [their] ignorance,..."

    And then the authors go on to document in great detail the manifest and many ways the Tea Partiers are profoundly ignorant. This is a great example of liberals quivering in fear at describing a right-wing phenomenon exactly as it is: the result of ignorant Christianist bigotry.

  • DisgustedWithItAll on April 18, 2012 12:56 PM:

    The Tea Party is a re-branded Christian right for the most part. As for politics they are simply team players, uber fans of Team Republican. They are the die-hards; no matter how bad the team is doing, they do not switch allegiances. They would vote for Satan if he ran on the Republican ticket. (Satan is, by the way, a Republican.)