The Tea Party was formed by and attracts radical reactionaries. It also radicalizes and energizes its supporters … and that multiplies their political influence. (More)

Change They Can’t Believe In, Part III: The Reactionary ‘Grassroots’

This week Morning Feature considers Christopher Parker and Matt Barreto’s new book Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America. Thursday we introduced their theory that the Tea Party is less conservative than a conspiracy-driven reactionary movement. Yesterday we examined their evidence: two large, multi-state surveys of Tea Party supporters’ views on freedom, patriotism, and minorities. Today we conclude with the Tea Party rejection of President Obama, why they wield outsized influence in the GOP, and whether this month’s debacle will diminish their clout.

Christopher Parker is the Stuart A. Scheingold Professor of Social Justice and Political Science at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the author of Fighting for Democracy. Matt A. Barreto is associate professor of political science at the University of Washington, Seattle, director of the Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race and Sexuality, and the author of Ethnic Cues.

‘Grassroots’ waiting to happen

The authors recount the well-known story of the Tea Party’s origins, noting the Libertarian Party of Illinois’ forming of the Boston Tea Party of Chicago in December 2008 and Rick Santelli’s CNBC rant the following April from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

But the Tea Party’s origins run deeper than the authors’ account. As we saw in our discussion of Rich People’s Movements, the Tea Party theme for anti-tax protests began in California in the 1950s with Vivian Kellems’ Liberty Belles. When her group faded and Willis Stone resigned from the Liberty Amendment Committee in the late 1960s, their mailing lists were given to Robert Welch and his John Birch Society. The JBS used the lists to organize anti-tax protesters in California and were active in both Ronald Reagan’s administration as governor and his campaign for the presidency in 1980. Fred Koch was a founding member of the JBS, and his sons Charles and David founded and funded the Citizens for a Sound Economy in 1984. In 2002, the CSE set up the U.S. Tea Party website to protest federal taxes and regulations, especially of the tobacco and fossil fuel industries.

As we saw in Rich People’s Movements, reactionary movements form in response to specific policy threats, and the Tea Party lay dormant during the business-friendly Bush administration. In 2004, the CSE split into Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks. Aside from the usual spate of policy papers, neither group attracted much notice until 2008. But with President Obama’s election and popular anger at Wall Street “masters of the universe” surging in the wake of the 2008 collapse, well-funded and experienced political operatives at Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks got busy … and the Tea Party “suddenly” emerged.

“A fraud on the American people!”

From the outset, Tea Party organizers focused their anger on newly-elected President Obama. The authors quote a statement posted on the launch of a prominent Tea Party website in April 2009:

Barack Hussein Obama is a fraud on the American people! The lunatic left helped get him elected and is using him in a power grab to rapidly replace our capitalist system with far-left socialism that will ruin our country. We can stop this power grab because we are convinced that Barack Hussein Obama is not a natural-born citizen of the U.S. and therefore is not qualified to be President of the U.S.A. It is our intent to offer the kind of reward that will motivate someone to produce Barack Hussein Obama’s real birth certificate that can be proven to be valid!

The authors’ survey data confirm that the Tea Party has been organized around personal opposition to President Obama. Tea Party supporters are less likely than opponents to believe the president is knowledgeable (56% vs. 97%), to believe he cares about people (53% vs. 96%), to believe he is moral (55% vs. 95%), and far less likely to believe he is a good leader (27% vs. 90%). They are also less likely than Tea Party opponents to believe President Obama is a Christian (29% vs. 80%), or that he was born in the U.S. (41% vs. 85%).

And just as we saw yesterday, Tea Party supporters’ beliefs stand in contrast to those of other conservatives:

  • Presidential traits – As compared to other conservatives, Tea Party supporters are less likely to believe President Obama is knowledgeable (43% vs. 72%), moral (33% vs. 60%), cares about people (32% vs. 63%), or a strong leader (9% vs. 50%).
  • Biographical facts – As compared to other conservatives, Tea Party supporters are less likely to believe President Obama is a Christian (25% vs. 42%), that he was born in the U.S. (38% vs. 52%). Most notably, Tea Party supporters are far more likely than other conservatives to hope President Obama’s policies fail (78% vs. 36%).

“Fox News as a means of forging a collective identity”

The authors’ survey data fit the findings from a Bloomberg poll last month. That poll found dramatically higher antipathy for President Obama among Tea Party supporters as compared to other Republicans. (The poll also found that 93% of Tea Party supporters believe the federal deficit increased in 2013. In fact it fell by nearly half.) Michael Lind, author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States, writes that the Tea Party is grounded in white Southern local elites who want to exploit cheap labor and reject federal policies that empower workers. That fits the pattern of the original Rich People’s Movement, Southern bankers organized by J.A. Arnold in the 1920s to oppose federal income taxes in an attempt to break up “land banks” that gave better rates to farmers.

Some of the Tea Party’s radicalism lies in attracting conspiracy-peddling reactionaries like Alex Jones and members of the John Birch Society. But the authors argue that the Tea Party also radicalizes its supporters:

Still, we think it’s more likely that support for the Tea Party … influences anti-Obama attitudes.

Our confidence rests on the role played by Fox News as a means of forging a collective identity among Tea Party elites, activists, and supporters. As Kathleen Hall Jamieson and John Capella’s research demonstrates, increasing exposure to conservative media tends to crystallize, even change opinions on important issues. Moreover, they show that the insularity of consumers of conservative media from more mainstream media outlets, in which they’d come across viewpoints counter to what they see on, say, Fox, tends to promote attitudes at variance with the rest of America.

“A sense that Obama and his confederates seek to destroy the country”

Over the past month, Americans watched the House Tea Party Caucus force a federal government shutdown and nearly a default on the federal debt. Yet the Tea Party Caucus has only 47 members in the U.S. House and six in the U.S. Senate, and last month Gallup found only 22% support for the Tea Party. (A Pew Research poll this week found 30% Tea Party support, an all-time low in their surveys.) How can such a small movement dominate the U.S. House and hold the entire nation hostage?

The answer, in part, is activism. The authors found that Tea Party supporters were more likely than opponents to be highly interested in politics (74% vs. 67%), attend political meetings (32% vs. 25%), and to report having voted in 2010 (88% vs. 79%). And again, there was a substantial difference between Tea Party supporters and other conservatives:

  • Non-electoral activism – Tea Party supporters were more than twice as likely as other conservatives to attend political meetings (40% vs. 18%), and more likely to follow national political news (85% vs. 66%).
  • Electoral activism – Tea Party members were more likely than other conservatives to say they voted in 2010 (92% vs. 78%) and to say they voted for Republicans (96% vs. 74%).

While the self-reported data on voting may be overstated, Tea Party supporters are more politically active than other conservatives, and more active than Tea Party opponents. That activism may explain why Republican candidates and elected officials vastly overestimate the conservative views of their constituents. Couple that with the Tea Party’s well-funded Beltway supporters – Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, the Heritage Action Fund, Club for Growth, etc. – and Republicans have reason to fear Tea Party primary opponents.

That greater activism is, the authors argue, a product of anger. They present data showing that fear tends to make people withdraw, while anger is more likely to spur risk-taking and activism. They conclude:

Prior to our analysis a critic could credibly charge that Tea Party supporters were no more committed to opposing Obama’s policies than other partisans and conservatives. Now, however, we know this isn’t true: sympathizers are motivated by something else. Throughout, we have maintained that beneath the anger and anxiety demonstrated by Tea Party supporters is a sense that Obama and his confederates seek to destroy the country.

The shutdown and debt ceiling debacle clearly dented Tea Party support. But right-wing reactionaries survived their ouster by William F. Buckley in the 1960s to return as the Tea Party, and history suggests they will not simply vanish in the wake of this setback. Indeed yesterday FreedomWorks CEO Matt Kibbe said the Tea Party will split off from the GOP unless they are allowed to dominate it.

We progressives must accept that the Tea Party will not Just Go Away … and accept that we’ll have to organize and mobilize to defeat them.


Happy Saturday!