The Tea Party Paradox

A democratic movement that is anti-democratic at heart

It remains one of the mysteries of our political age: How did a Wall Street-spawned meltdown and the worst recession in decades spark a populist reaction against government? In the 1930s, the failure of a Republican administration and laissez-faire economics led to a leftward swing and the New Deal. In our time, the financial crisis seemed poised to catalyze a revived reformism. But mere months—weeks even—after President Obama’s swearing-in, angry Americans began gathering in living rooms and town halls and public parks to demand an end to government tyranny.

Who are they, and what do they want? In the nearly three years since the Tea Party’s efflorescence, political observers and the media have sought answers to those questions. A third question—what are they capable of?—has already been answered. Many liberals and political elites scoffed when the army of tricorn-wearing, teabag-toting protesters first appeared. A midterm election and a hijacked government later, the smirks are gone. The Tea Party, it turned out, is a real force, and its impact has been nothing less than seismic.

The last couple of years have seen a rush of volumes hoping to explain and exploit the phenomenon, their titles matching the movement’s heat: Boiling Mad, The Whites of Their Eyes, The Backlash, Give Us Liberty, Mad as Hell. Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson’s The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism might seem a latecomer, but it is in its own way well timed, arriving in the midst of a presidential campaign. What does the Tea Party do now that it has had a taste of governing? And where does American democracy go from here?

As its comparatively bloodless title suggests, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism eschews rhetoric in favor of rigor. Skocpol, an influential sociologist and political scholar at Harvard (and, full disclosure, a member of the editorial committee of the magazine where I work), and Williamson, a PhD student in government there, employ both qualitative and quantitative methods to give us a head-to-toe anatomy of the Tea Party movement. A systematic and disciplined analysis, it is the definitive study of the Tea Party to date.

Skocpol and Williamson see the Tea Party as neither solely a mass movement nor an Astroturf creation, arguing for something in between: a grassroots movement amplified by the right-wing media and supported by elite donors. To better understand their subjects, the authors went into the field, observing meetings and conducting phone and in-person interviews.

For too long, a credulous mainstream media depicted the Tea Party as an uprising of independents fed up with the dominant political parties. But as Skocpol and Williamson assert—and as other astute commentators have been saying all along—they’re not really new, and they’re hardly independent. Indeed, they’re little more than a hard-core faction within the Republican Party—the “most recent incarnation of American conservative populism.” Come election time, “Tea Partiers do not engage in swing voting in general elections,” they write. “[T]hey support the enemy of their main enemies: they vote for candidates that can displace Barack Obama and other Democrats.”

It’s all aimed at reducing the size of government—or is it? One Virginian voiced a typical, if debatable, sentiment: “The nation is broke. It is bankrupt.” But as others have noted, the Tea Party’s anti-government impulse, while no doubt deeply held, sounds more talking point than principle when you subject it to interrogation. The authors surprised some of their interviewees by asking if there was anything they liked about government. Forced to inspect the object of their hatred, Tea Partiers found things to applaud: national parks, health care for children through Medicaid, the grandeur of the nation’s capital.

And, of course, entitlements. In surveys, Tea Partiers support Social Security and Medicare, even going so far as to back tax hikes to keep the programs funded; an oft-quoted sign at a Tea Party rally warned potential meddlers to “keep the government’s hands off my Medicare.” Critics have pounced on such incoherence as evidence that the Tea Party position is driven by self-interest. As surveys have shown, Tea Partiers tend to be white, churchgoing, wealthier than the average American—and retired.

But Skocpol and Williamson reject such reductionism. As they point out, “Tea Party people know that Social Security, Medicare, and veterans’ programs are government-managed, expensive, and funded with taxes.” In the Tea Party worldview, support for entitlements and abhorrence of government can coexist. There is, in fact, a principle here: it’s not that government shouldn’t provide benefits, it’s that they should go only to the deserving. “I earned it,” many Tea Partiers told the authors in so many words.

The implication, of course, is that there are people out there who haven’t. The freeloader looms large in the Tea Partiers’ nightmares. “I would prefer that the moocher class not live off my hard work,” said one. Indeed, one of the revelations of Skocpol and Williamson’s interviews is that the specter of welfare continues to spook many conservatives. The anti-moocher strain assumes an uglier cast when you consider what the villains look like in Tea Party cosmology. As the authors note, “Compared to other Americans, including other conservatives, Tea Party participants more readily subscribe to harsh generalizations about immigrants and blacks.” Other targets include the young, Muslims, and the poor—the parts of America that don’t look like the Tea Party.

But some Americans have always privately held such resentments. The question is how dormant sentiment gets mobilized. Skocpol and Williamson examine the crucial role played by media and conservative elites. Lest we forget, the catalyzing event for the Tea Party happened on television. CNBC’s Rick Santelli, reporting from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, called for a “Chicago Tea Party” for the nation’s capitalists to protest the government subsidizing “the losers’ mortgages” (those “moochers” again).

From there, the right-wing echo chamber picked up the thread. Talk radio and the blogosphere promoted the Tea Party idea; Fox News essentially midwifed the movement, relentlessly “covering” the rallies. A private resentment shared with friends is one thing. Amplified on national television, it becomes something else—perhaps an ethos. Tea Parties sprouted across the landscape in those early months, but it was Fox News that allowed those disparate groups to think of themselves as a nation.

No less important were the right-wing advocacy groups that jumped to exploit the ferment. Two of the biggest, FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, trace their roots to those libertarian bogeymen, David and Charles Koch. The groups have been around for years, albeit with limited impact. As New York Times reporter Kate Zernike wrote in Boiling Mad, FreedomWorks had actually tried to use the Boston Tea Party as a metaphor for right-wing populist agitation way back in 2002. But it had to wait for the eruption of grassroots frustration for the idea to finally take hold.

As Skocpol and Williamson report, Washington elites may not have started the Tea Party, but they have played a crucial role in keeping it going. While there have been occasional tensions between local leaders and the national apparatus, the relationship between the two is symbiotic: national groups provide resources and information, while local Tea Parties give right-wing think tanks the ground game they’ve always lacked.

That said, the future of that relationship faces serious questions. Having rallied their side to the polls during the midterms, the Tea Party has become a potential liability for the GOP as the general election approaches—an election that will feature a younger, browner, and more moderate electorate. The maximalist agenda that Tea Partiers demanded from their representatives have helped bring congressional approval ratings to an all-time low. And the Tea Party brand itself is suffering. As Robert Putnam and David Campbell wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed, the Tea Party has become widely disliked—so much so that in surveys rating different groups in America, the Tea Party ranked even lower than atheists.

For all of Skocpol and Williamson’s claims that the Tea Party is merely “the latest iteration of long-standing, hard-core conservatism in American politics,” the context in which it mushroomed gives the phenomenon a frisson of the new. Tending toward the apocalyptic, the Tea Party mindset saw in Barack Obama’s election something more than a Democrat taking the presidency—it was a symbol for an America that was becoming unrecognizable to them.

The authors nod at this notion, writing that the Tea Partiers’ “anger evinces a determination to restore that remembered America.” And that anger leads to something deeper and darker than a partisan reaction. In a movement riven with paradoxes, perhaps the most alarming is how a vibrant manifestation of democracy can itself hold such anti-democratic views. Skocpol and Williamson report that in all their interviews, they “never heard anyone acknowledge the need for two-way dialogue with other Americans who think differently from Tea Partiers.” Non-Tea Partiers who don’t hold the same views just need to be “educated.” And Democrats? Engaging them would be “a waste of time,” and compromise would “verge on the illegitimate.”

The irony for American politics is that the Tea Party arrived just as a fervent believer in civic virtue assumed the presidency. Intellectual historian James Kloppenberg traces Obama’s political thought to William James’s philosophical pragmatism and James Madison’s belief in democratic deliberation. Obama’s governing ethic is premised on the very act of dialogue. As Obama himself wrote in The Audacity of Hope, our democracy is “not a house to be built, but a conversation to be had.” That conversation, especially between people who disagree, is the soul of the American experiment.

Obama’s democratic faith has proven poignant, even tragic, in the face of an adversary that sees democracy less as a conversation than a scorched-earth battle. Indeed, Obama himself has lately abandoned those principles, shifting from conciliation to confrontation, to the relief of supporters who blanched at his repeated overtures to an immovable opposition.

The next year will be ugly. But the years after that will likely be ugly, too, and our hopes lie in that very thing the Tea Party hates the most—America’s capacity for change. In the meantime, this is the dolorous legacy that the Tea Party has left us: an ever-more radical GOP, yes; a hobbled presidency, sure; but, most important, the interment of good-faith deliberation as a central tenet of the democratic creed. 

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Elbert Ventura is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.