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.

The Tea Party
and the Remaking of
Republican Conservatism

by Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson
Oxford University Press, 264 pp.

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.

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.

If the Tea Party turned its watchful eye to the local level, where the really impressive incompetence and corruption exists, it would do three things. First, it would give the movement real staying power and independence from the institutional interest of the Republican Party. Second, it would direct the democratic arts that many Tea Party activists practice at a genuine participatory vacuum. And third, it would help the activists see that some of the liberals they currently caricature could become some of their strongest allies. Myself included.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.

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Steven M. Teles

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.