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

Local Tea Party activists get little money from the kinds of groups supported by the Kochs (like the Tea Party Express and the Tea Party Patriots), nor do the elites exercise much, if any, direct control of local groups. Instead, Skocpol and Williamson found that “the relationship between big national funders and small grassroots groups appears to be one of mutual convenience, with little shared knowledge or joint investment.” Local Tea Party meetings have a constant need for speakers, especially those who can attract new members, and elite conservative groups find it very useful to have a venue for their speakers. This ensures that the priorities of conservative elites (including matters that the grass roots have never heard of) have a greater probability of becoming the de facto position of the movement’s activists—not through control from the top, but by sheer repetition and availability. The relationship is one of mutual exploitation, in which “everyone is trying to leverage something they want from others in the network.”

Another area of mutual leverage is the relationship between the Tea Party and Fox News. A remarkable 63 percent of Tea Party supporters report watching Fox News, and the number is likely higher for activists. But Roger Ailes does not control the Tea Party. Instead, the activists and the network have created a “community of meaning,” in which the worldview of the activists has seeped into the news, and the stories reported by the network feed the activists’ perceptions of a constant threat from liberalism. But Fox News and conservative radio only provide the potential conspiracies—they don’t explain the increasing receptivity of the conservative grass roots to wacky claims of death panels and the like.

The resurrection of the conservative conspiratorial instinct from what seemed like permanent interment is new. The sudden financial collapse, the election of Barack Obama, and a dizzying explosion of government activism were all profoundly threatening. This made many grassroots conservatives open to the possibility that forces they could not see were driving events, and thus receptive to accusation of plots invisible to others. In addition, as Skocpol and Williamson make clear, while many Tea Party activists “know the rules and procedures for passing bills and advancing regulations in detail,” they “hold wildly inaccurate views of what is in, or not in, public policies or legislative proposals.” Consequently, their procedural snooping repeatedly discovers conspiracies in what are really the dry mechanics and terminology of modern governance. The disorienting events of 2007 and 2008, in combination with the “betrayal” of conservative principle earlier in the decade, have led to a complete collapse of trust in authority on the right. With this has come a shifting of the ordinary burden of proof, such that authorities are forced to prove that things with little or no evidence for them are in fact untrue, and that purported conservatives are not secretly in league with “them.”

An interesting question that Skocpol and Williamson’s work raises but doesn’t answer is whether—like the John Birch Society before them—the wilder conspiracy-mongering arm of the Tea Partiers will eventually die off as they come closer to power. That would lead to a conservative movement with a stronger, more mobilized base, but not one that was fundamentally inimical to governing. It wouldn’t be great for Democrats, but it might be good for actual governance.

But one can also envision a future in which the men and women for whom radical conservatism is a business model continue to fan the madness while avoiding responsibility for it. Conservatives are divided between those of genuine, deep, thoughtful conviction and those for whom (as David Frum has eloquently argued) selling conspiracies and hatred of liberals is good business. Political parties have to build majorities, and thus need to discipline their wilder fringes. That’s typically the function of the party Old Guard, but the collapse of authority in the Republican Party has led such men and women to grudgingly bend their knee to the Tea Party and those who claim to speak for it, rather than (as Karl Rove and George W. Bush did with immigration and “compassionate conservatism”) bringing them to heel in the interests of building a majority.

Conservative elites are now paired with a real grassroots movement, but it is a movement that they do not control; rather, it increasingly controls them. Tea Partiers have told themselves they will never repeat the experience of the 2000s in which party leaders sold them out. The official understanding of those years is that Republican members of Congress spoke in reverential terms about limited government but then went along with pork-barrel spending, expansions of the welfare state like Medicare Part D, and even massive regulatory programs like cap and trade. Party elites seeking electoral majorities embraced compassionate conservatism, including outreach to minorities and immigrants, despite the fact that there was little enthusiasm for any of this among the people who provide the party with the bulk of its votes.

The Tea Party rejects the idea that it needs to defer to party elites, and in its place has resurrected the principle that leaders are agents of their supporters. In search of the pure of heart, they have increasingly rejected leaders who show signs of accommodation or compromise. The experience of the last decade, it seems, can, in the minds of Tea Party activists, only be fully washed away by rejecting the arts of politics completely.

The party of big business, consequently, has become the one with an active, engaged base capable of disciplining their leaders. The cost of this increasing responsiveness to the party base is an allergy to engaging in even the most basic aspects of governmental housekeeping like increasing the debt limit. By contrast, the
“party of the common man” has a relatively weak and hobbled base. This has given Democratic leaders the space (sometimes to a fault) for the actual compromises and strategic judgments involved in governance. The Republicans’ key political challenge, therefore, is to avoid being pushed over a cliff by their activists, to the point that they totally alienate more centrist voters. The problem for Democrats, as seen in the relatively weak mass mobilization for health care reform and cap and trade, is that their activists lack the ground game to push anyone anywhere.

Hearing the voices of the Tea Party activists who Skocpol and Williamson spoke with, I could not help but think how much good a free market, constitutionally inspired movement could be doing at the real grass roots. Nearly every city and town in America has genuinely noxious constraints on the ability of businesses and individuals to make an honest living. It would be wonderful if some of the Tea Party energy— and even anger—were directed at NIMBY-driven constraints on development, the rampant abuse of eminent domain by business, and the multitude of licensing and needless regulations thrown in the way of entrepreneurs by local governments. In fact, it is almost certainly the case that the worst violations of individual liberty, property rights, and the free market occur at the local level—what the libertarian Institute for Justice has called “grassroots tyranny.” And they happen because, in many cases, so few people are watching.

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.)