Tea and Very Little Sympathy

Ever since the emergence of the Tea Party–with its intransigence, ideological rigidity and hostility–there has been a robust debate about who they are, what they want, and whether they are a genuine grass-roots movement or the product of some canny (and wealthy) Republican operatives. Other than poll results, however, there has been very little empirical research informing that debate.

That has changed. In a recent issue of “Perspectives on Politics,” a peer-reviewed journal published by the American Political Science Association, Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol and John Coggin published “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.” I don’t know Williamson or Coggin, but Theda Skocpol is a widely-respected Harvard Professor who–among other things–has served as the President of the American Political Science Association.

The article is worth reading in its entirety, but here are some highlights:

  • The Tea Party is a new incarnation of “long-standing strands” in American conservatism.
  • Tea Party opposition to the Affordable Care Act is not a manifestation of hostility to social programs per se; the opposition is based upon resentment of “perceived government handouts to “undeserving” people. (Tea partiers see themselves as entitled to Social Security and Medicare.) Their definition of “undeserving” “seems heavily influenced by racial and ethnic stereotypes.”
  • The Tea Party owes its emergence not only to the Republican elites that initially bankrolled it, but to Fox News. The authors believe that “the best way to understand Fox News’ role is as a national advocacy organization actively fostering a social protest identity.” (63% of Tea Party members watch Fox, as opposed to 11% of the general population.)
  • Tea Party members are a very small minority of Americans. Only one in five of those who claim to be members have actually attended an event or donated money. Members are older, white and middle-class, and a majority are men. The vast majority are conservative Republicans.

There is much more, but the central finding (in my opinion, at least) was that at the grassroots level, Tea Partiers judge social programs “not in terms of abstract free-market orthodoxy, but according to the perceived deservingness of recipients.” It will not come as a shock to most of us that deservingness is “an implicit cultural category.” Hence the hysteria over immigration (the study finds–surprise!–that “fears of immigration are closely linked to the ethnic identity of the immigrants in question”). Support for the Tea Party “remains a valid predictor of racial resentment” even after controlling for ideology and partisanship, and this finding goes a long way toward explaining what seems to most of us as an irrational hatred of Obama. As the authors put it, “At a fundamental level, Obama’s policies and his person are not within the Tea Party conception of America, so his election seems like a threat to what they understand as their country.”

And they want “their” country back.


  1. thanks for the reference Sheila!
    It’s nice to have legitimate research to refer to in support of the view that the underpinnings/origins of Tea Party “thinking” is racist. For my friends of color and me to say this – which we have said – always opens us up to accusations of “using the race card” or “being too sensitive” or whatever label suits the believers in the myth that we live in a post-racial society. What is especially frightening is that the Tea Party Caucus in Congress seems willing to destroy government in order to bring down a President because he is Black (but of course they won’t say this in public). Now, I’ll go download the paper…

  2. Well done, Sheila. I tend to equate tea-partiers with latter-day John Birchers, a continuation of Liberty League, KKK, Know-Nothings, etc., which have generally existed in American politics, and just keep popping up under different labels — but the same persons.

  3. I think you’re right about the Birch Society connection. Early funding for the Tea Parties came from the Koch brothers, whose father was a founder of the Birch Society.

  4. Amazing how the same rhetoric about the Tea Party People, i.e. they are racist, can be said using the cover of a professional sounding study. The author/researcher is very good at calling a group of people racist without sounding all the other liberals have sounded over the past 20 years.

  5. I had a question in mind about entitlement programs. Since Tea are stating that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are entitlement programs, they have also been referred to as Federal Individual Investment programs (not to confuse with IRA). Would that be a good description of what the programs are, as Individual Retirement Programs?

  6. I’m not entirely sure I understand the question, but I do think that the social safety net is an investment–not solely in individuals, but in the overall health of a society.

  7. JednaVira :
    Amazing how the same rhetoric about the Tea Party People, i.e. they are racist, can be said using the cover of a professional sounding study. The author/researcher is very good at calling a group of people racist without sounding all the other liberals have sounded over the past 20 years.

    I can’t parse this. What makes this “amazing”? Next, let’s just assume for the sake of argument that there are racist underpinnings to the attitudes described. Should we run from scientific study for fear of causing offense? Finally, I don’t understand the last phrase at all: “without sounding all the other liberals have sounded over the past 20 years”

  8. Sorry, mis-typed: “The author/researcher is very good at calling a group of people racist without sounding like all the other liberals have sounded over the past 20 years.”

    What makes this “study” amazing is that it is the same tired rhetoric liberals have used against conservatives over the past 20 years. And yes, I am questioning the very fact that this research is “scientific.”

    Please explain what “racist underpinnings” are attributed to small government beliefs. There are plenty of blacks and Hispanics within the Tea Party movement. How can anyone with intellectual honesty believe our government doesn’t spend too much and is too obtuse? Furthermore, I would argue that the “underpinnings” of the progressive movement are far more racist: Enslave the low and moderate income people to the government through various social programs. This is the antithesis of what our Founders intended, and what is righteous.

  9. I’ve only read a summary of the study, so I’m talking out of my hat here a little, but I think one of the issues was that people who identify with the Tea Party tend to be inconsistent about their small government advocacy; and the inconsistencies are at least correlated with race.

  10. Again, I feel like I’m listening to a bunch of bluegrass musicians describe the faults of jazz music without ever having listened to it.
    The journal authors, those participating in this discussion with revulsion for “tea party” ideology, have any of you been to the protests? Have you talked to the participants and sized them up yourself? Have you listened to them in the media or on talk shows? Is their concern “proper” allocation of benefits or racial ethnicity of our President, or a collective belief in limited government and spending? Concerns that were a long way from being unheard of pre-Obama.
    Gallup estimates 20% of America as liberal, 40% as moderate, and 40% as conservative. However, I don’t think of liberals or moderates as being escapees from Saturn’s far moon if they believe President Obama capable of constructive achievements. I would concur with them on his thrust for multi-national cooperation in Libya (even if I think being there a mistake), on his enhanced mileage standards, and his very election being an enormous symbolic achievement for our country.
    Why must conservatives be racist or hysterical when we get past the symbology, and disagree with policies like mandatory health care purchase or illegal immigration?
    The sooner we get past our mutual aghast and pursue accountability on the part of all our demographics, the sooner we again become globally competitive.

  11. Excellent Post Mr. Curtchfield.

    Doug, I am one conservative who is NOT inconsistent with my “small government advocacy.” Your last statement that “the inconsistencies are at least correlated with race” is exactly the problem. The study is faulty and unreliable. Do you realize that ice cream sales is correlated with increased violent crime. Correlations doesn’t mean a thing.

    Race-baiting is the very thing liberals are good at, because they think on an emotional level instead of using facts and logic. It’s easier to influence someone’s behavior by appealing to emotions. “Hate the tea party, they hate blacks and Hispanics!” Here are some facts: More Democrats voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act than republicans, in pure numbers and percentage of party.

  12. I disagree that correlations “don’t mean a thing.” They don’t guarantee causation; but you’ll want to start looking for causes in places where you see correlations.

  13. I actually took a moment to go to a Tea Party meeting last month. I thought they were pretty radical, some of the comments made were disturbing at best. State Rep. Jeff Thompson spoke about the evils of same-sex marriage. Eventually his argument deflated and he spilled some line about how homosexuality has “disgusting health related problems” that he couldn’t speak of in the presence of ladies. (I asked him where he acquired said information, and he told me to google it. “But be careful, you can’t trust all the infomation you get online.” I asked for the name of the studies he read, even one author and he couldn’t name one.)

    Then they bashed the Supreme Court ruling that stated the allowing people to violently resist arrest was bad public policy. Which, I don’t think from listening to them they had even read it.

    In my experience, most self-identified Tea Partiers have been overwhelmingly conservative, most I would put on the far-right fringes. Most I have heard speak are very xenophobic.

    If Jeff Foxworthy told Tea Party jokes he might start off with this one: If you only get your history from David Barton… you might be a Tea Partyist.

  14. @JednaVira: I don’t know that it’s reasonable to blame the economy on Obama entirely. That disregards the deficits the Bush administration ran when it decided to fund two wars and an expensive prescription drug policy AND lower taxes.

    I think historically, Keynesian economics have proven the best strategy to get out of recessions. That’s how we got out of the Great Depression, and some could argue that was how Reagan stopped the slide after Carter was voted out. Both cases government spending ramped up considerably.

    Currently, I think the largest problem facing Congress is the manner in which Republicans are behaving. I think the trend over the last 2 3/4 years has been if Obama wants it, Republicans oppose it. Regardless of whether or not that stance helps or hurts Americans. It’s pretty sad really.

  15. Chris, The deficit spending of Bush was unacceptable, and most of it was supported by a Democrat controlled congress. Obama makes the Bush deficits look like child’s play. How can anyone with an intellectually honest mind not see the gross spending increases of the Obama Administration. They aren’t even in the same ball park as Bush’s. Both of them were wrong.

    SA, why would anyone with any amount of intelligence increase taxes on any income level and give our government, who has proven they can’t be trusted with our money, more money to blow. Insanity. You liberals will spend our nation out of existence.

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