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.