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The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.



Preface and Acknowledgments.

Surprise and curiosity prompted us to do research on the Tea Party.

Most scholars.h.i.+p on U.S. politics addresses established academic questions, pulls concepts and hypotheses off the library shelf, and chews over computerized datasets. But when the Tea Party burst on the scene starting in 2009, it challenged a.s.sumptions about how U.S. politics would play out following the big Democratic victories in the 2008 elections. No canned datasets would be of much use to track an emergent set of protests; and the Tea Party as a whole could not be plopped into available conceptualizations about third parties, social movements, or popular protests during sharp economic downturns. Perfect! Many in academia turn away if something doesn't fit. But we were fascinated and intensely curious about this puzzling outburst. We wanted to get off our duffs, figure it out-and tell others what we found.

In 2009 and early 2010, Theda was doing research on the Obama presidency and the politics of health reform when the surprise victory of Republican Scott Brown in the Ma.s.sachusetts special election put a spotlight on Tea Party activists and funders. In fact, the Tea Partiers were out there on the Ma.s.sachusetts roadways, dressed in costumes and waving their signs. Clearly, the Tea Party was becoming a force in electoral politics, countering if not upending the policy agendas of the Obama administration. But who was involved in the Tea Party? How did it work, this combination of gra.s.sroots activism with sudden infusions of hundreds of thousands of dollars into campaigns such as Scott Brown's for the U.S. Senate? Would the Tea Party impact on electoral politics and public policy-making prove minimal and ephemeral-or was something bigger afoot? The answers were not obvious at all-so the questions kept nagging.

Around the same time, Vanessa was interested in gra.s.sroots activism about health reform, and decided to launch a research project for one of her graduate seminars comparing citizen mobilization around health reform on the left and right. She intended to look at both the Tea Party and Organizing for America (OFA), the organization founded to follow up on activism in the Obama presidential campaign of 2008. But very quickly she discovered that OFA was essentially dormant at the gra.s.s roots, with phone banking and email alerts proceeding in ways typical for routine party politics. Tea Party activists, by contrast, were holding meetings and plotting dramatic protests to oppose health reform legislation pending in Was.h.i.+ngton DC. Vanessa had originally presumed the Tea Party to be little more than a media phenomenon, pushed by conservative big-money funders. Her a.s.sumptions upended, she decided to look more closely at the Tea Party activists. Working with a fellow graduate student, John Coggin, she contacted Ma.s.sachusetts Tea Partiers and arranged observations and interviews during the spring of 2010.

In the summer of 2010, Vanessa and John teamed up with Theda to write an article, "The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism," that was accepted by Perspectives on Politics to appear in March 2011. Research for that article raised additional questions and suggested further lines of investigation. With encouragement from David McBride at Oxford University Press, Theda and Vanessa hatched the plan for this book.

We set out to learn more about the Tea Party's impact on the Republican Party, its role in the 2010 elections, and its impact on national political debates. We recruited two undergraduates to help us a.s.semble a nationwide database on local Tea Parties, and we reached out to Tea Party activists in states beyond Ma.s.sachusetts to arrange to observe meetings and talk with people at the gra.s.sroots in other states. A huge amount of new research needed to get done in a few short months so that this book could appear by the end of 2011.

Many people have helped us develop arguments, complete the research, and produce the book. Of course, people at Oxford University Press have been central, and we thank David McBride, Alexandra Dauler, Amy Whitmer, and others at the Press for their wise advice and efficient professional efforts.

We are grateful to John Coggin for his contributions to the field research in Ma.s.sachusetts. His incisive observations and tireless good cheer made this book's earliest field research a great deal of fun. We benefited from discussions with Emily Ekins, who is working on a UCLA PhD dissertation about the Tea Party. Adam Bonica, visiting at Princeton's Center for American Politics during 201011 and now on the faculty at Stanford University, contributed the data and developed the measures for Figure 5.1 on ideological polarization in the House of Representatives. His willingness to help us doc.u.ment a key political transition is much appreciated. We also thank Harvard graduate student Rich Nielsen for introducing us to the Jon McNaughton painting, "One Nation Under G.o.d." For their work on the nationwide database of local Tea Parties, we are deeply grateful to Andrew Crutchfield and Will Eger, two Harvard undergraduates who did hundreds of hours of skillful sleuthing on the Internet during the spring semester of 2011. They not only coded data; they also alerted us to fascinating features of specific groups around the country.

Although this book was developed in a compressed time, we nevertheless took opportunities to make presentations to fellow scholars along the way, and picked the brains of colleagues willing to read papers and drafts. We are grateful for comments and insights offered by Dan Carpenter, Gregorz Ekiert, Claudine Gay, Peter Hall, Jennifer Hochschild, and Robert Putnam-all colleagues in the Harvard Department of Government. We also benefited greatly from lively discussions of our research at the seminar for the March 23, 2011 Alexis de Tocqueville Lecture sponsored by the Center for American Political Studies at Harvard, and at the April 28, 2011 meeting of the Boston Area Research Workshop on History, Inst.i.tutions, and Politics, where Mark Helbling and Alex Hertel-Fernandez provided very helpful comments. At the Tocqueville event, the official discussants Suzanne Mettler of Cornell, Larry Bartels of Princeton, and Mickey Edwards of the Aspen Inst.i.tute each offered sharp observations; and Jane Mans-bridge of the Harvard Kennedy School asked a thought-provoking question about democratic partic.i.p.ation. And in both group discussions, colleagues posed telling questions about data and interpretations. We have not answered all of their points, but their arguments made an impression and allowed us to improve our ma.n.u.script up until the last minute.

Perhaps our greatest debt is to the Tea Party partic.i.p.ants in Ma.s.sachusetts, Virginia, and Arizona who hosted our visits and were willing to meet with us for personal interviews and allow us to attend and observe local meetings. Conservatives all, with political views very different from our views in our personal lives as citizens, they nevertheless treated us with courtesy and kindness. The people we met answered our questions with obvious sincerity and willingness to let us better understand their points of view, their values, and their activities. No other source of information we tapped for this project was anywhere nearly as important-and it was a great pleasure to get out of Cambridge, Ma.s.sachusetts, and visit actual Tea Party meetings and events in other very different parts of our marvelous country. It has been fascinating for us, and very important, to hear directly from Tea Party people about why they got involved, how, and to what ends. We got beyond stereotypes and preconceptions, to learn in person about people's hopes and fears for American democracy.

Christen Varley of the Greater Boston Tea Party was graciously accommodating in the early stages of this research, encouraging our attendance at meetings and sending out our email questionnaire to Ma.s.sachusetts activists. We are equally grateful to Peter Courtney Stephens of Gloucester, Virginia, and to others in his local group, the Peninsula Patriots, for sharing so much with us. We thank Carole Thorpe of Charlottesville, Virginia, for inviting Theda to one of her group's meetings and following up by phone and email to answer further questions about their approach to citizen organizing. In Arizona, Jim and Julie Wise and Sandi Bartlett are tireless organizers who found time to welcome Vanessa to their meetings.

We realize that our Tea Party hosts and contacts will not agree with everything we argue in this book. Still, we hope they will feel that we have treated them and others at the gra.s.s roots with the respect they deserve as active and committed fellow American citizens. We found each person we met admirable and likeable in many ways, and the warm hospitality they extended to us was encouraging beyond our expectations. The picture of the Tea Party we develop in this book is richer, more accurate, and more insightful because of the time they gave to us.

Finally, we thank our husbands, Bill Skocpol and Brad Johnson, and Vanessa's parents, Liz and Arthur Williamson. They all put up with our preoccupation with this project over many crucial months, and Vanessa's parents did some sharp-eyed editing, too.

Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson.

Cambridge, Ma.s.sachusetts, August 2011.

The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.


"I Want My Country Back!"

On the evening of March 23, 2010, more than forty Tea Partiers filled to overflowing the back room of the Cape Cod Cafe, a diner on Main Street in the gritty town of Brockton, Ma.s.sachusetts. Their regularly scheduled monthly meeting fell only hours after President Barack Obama had signed into law the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act. The pa.s.sage of "ObamaCare," as Tea Partiers derisively call it, was an especially bitter pill in Ma.s.sachusetts. Just two months earlier, conservatives had mobilized for a surprise GOP victory in the special election to replace the late Senator Ted Kennedy. Republican victor Scott Brown had promised to provide the forty-first vote needed to block health reform in the U.S. Senate.

By all rights, Bay State Tea Partiers should have been demoralized that rainy evening. But their enthusiasm seemed undampened. A trickle of early arrivals quickly became a flood, and waitresses struggled to navigate the standing-room crowd.1 ObamaCare needed to be repealed, everyone agreed; yet the group also maintained a determined focus on local endeavors. Amidst talk of an upcoming Tax Day rally planned for the Boston Common, Tea Partiers displayed sophisticated political awareness, sharing tips on how to build a contact list for registered Republicans in each district and brainstorming about how to persuade Tea Party members to run for the legislature. President Obama may have scored a victory, but the faithful still felt energized and on the offensive for the rest of 2010.

As it turned out, Ma.s.sachusetts Tea Partiers had few additional electoral successes. But it was a different story across much of the rest of the country. In the November 2010 midterm elections, the dreams of many Tea Party activists were realized, as Republicans gained sixty-three seats in the U.S. House of Representatives-sending former Speaker Nancy Pelosi back to the minority leader's office and putting Republicans in charge. Republicans also gained six seats in the Senate and claimed six new governors.h.i.+ps and about 700 more seats in state legislatures. Brash Tea Party-aligned governors took charge in places such as Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Indeed, a great many of the victorious GOP candidates of 2010 openly identified with the Tea Party and enjoyed the support of activists and plutocratic funders a.s.sociated with the cause.

Tea Partiers did not bask for long in the 2010 afterglow. It was no time to relax and let Republicans in office fall into go-along-to-get-along routines of meeting Democrats halfway. Tea Partiers set their sights on stillgreater gains at the polls in 2011 and 2012, but would not stand down until then. They would not hear of compromises, and pushed GOP officials to act quickly and unremittingly: to reduce taxes, slash public spending, curb public sector unions, and clear away regulations on business. Policing immigrants, safeguarding Second Amendment gun rights, and promoting pro-life and traditional family values were also important goals for many at the gra.s.s roots.

Across America, gra.s.sroots Tea Partiers geared up in early 2011 to monitor and push local, state, and national officials. Characteristic of their determination was the discussion among about fifty members of the Jefferson Area Tea Party Patriots who, supper trays in hand, crowded into the back room of the Wood Grill Buffet on the north side of Charlottesville, Virginia, on February 24, 2011, to discuss future priorities.2 A lively give and take was skillfully orchestrated by Carole Thorpe, the energetic woman in her late forties elected to head the group. Did people want to endorse candidates for office? Most were wary. Endors.e.m.e.nts might divide their ranks and encourage candidates to sweet-talk Tea Partiers. Perhaps we can endorse when "a great candidate comes along," one man suggested, but we should be "90% watchdogs." His position got general a.s.sent, and Jefferson Area Patriots hatched plans to attend meetings of local government boards, track dozens of specific bills in the Virginia legislature and Congress, take over local GOP committees-and, last but not least, keep a close watch on Robert Hurt, the Virginia fifth district Republican recently elected to the House of Representatives. Even GOPers supported by Tea Partiers could "disappoint," explained Carole, who cited Scott Brown of Ma.s.sachusetts as a "textbook case." To avoid such betrayals, Tea Partiers must "organize for the long-term to carry the movement into the halls of government."

A similar effort was under way a few weeks later in a group near Phoenix, Arizona. On the evening of Wednesday, March 16, 2011, the Pink Slip Patriots of Tempe gathered in a meeting room at a local hotel.3 Pink Slip members are mostly women, though many have husbands in tow. Most are dressed in pink or sport pink accessories-and, in a clever double entendre, they proclaim themselves ever-ready to "deliver pink slips" to politicians. That night, featured speakers came from the Second Amendment Sisters, a pro-gun group, and from the Arizona branch of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a national free-market advocacy organization originally funded by the petrochemical billionaire Koch brothers.4 AFP speaker Tom Jenney told the a.s.sembled Tea Partiers about a new "scorecard" for state legislators and gave folks a rundown on what each Phoenix-area legislator had been doing. Pink Slip members took copious notes, and readied themselves to continue the conservative fight at every level of government.


The Tea Party's rise to prominence has been stunning. Celebrated by Fox News and urged on by national free-market advocacy groups, Tea Partiers like the ones we have just glimpsed in Ma.s.sachusetts, Virginia, and Arizona burst onto the national scene, starting in early 2009, just weeks into the Obama presidency. They mounted colorful protests, established local groups and regional networks, and delivered powerful electoral punches in the GOP primaries and the November 2010 general election. Subsequently, Tea Partiers have mobilized to keep Republican officeholders on the conservative straight and narrow.

The turnaround for U.S. conservatives has been remarkable because not so long ago the national tide seemed to be running against them. The elections of 2008 were widely said to portend doom for forces on the right. Not only did the November 2008 election mark the triumph of an African-American Democratic presidential candidate proposing an ambitious reform agenda; voters also sent formidable Democratic majorities to the House and Senate, and handed many statehouses to Democratic governors and legislators. Outgoing Republican President George W. Bush was extremely unpopular, and the failed presidential campaign of John McCain left the GOP without a clear leader.5 Before long, feuds broke out between the former campaign advisors to McCain and his rambunctious running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

Scrambling to regroup in late 2008 and early 2009, high-ranking Republicans were far from united behind their new party chair, Michael Steele.6 His tenure at the Republican National Committee would leave official party organs mired in controversy and debt. Masterminds like Karl Rove stepped to the fore to raise funds outside of the Republican National Committee. Yet who could be the public face of the GOP after Bush? Congressional minority leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner appeared regularly on television, of course, but no one would call either of them charismatic. Flamboyant media provocateurs like Rush Limbaugh seemed to be pointing the way for ultra-conservatives, but many moderate Republicans and independents recoiled from the vitriol of Limbaugh and his ilk. No wonder that in the months after the 2008 elections, pundits debated whether the Republican Party might be doomed to long-term decline. With rising cohorts of younger and minority voters energized on behalf of Barack Obama and the Democrats, the crestfallen GOP looked like a relic of the past, fast fading into irrelevance.7 For the opening months of his term, President Obama enjoyed wide public approval.8 Not everyone was on board, of course. Rank-and-file Republicans remained sullen and strongly opposed to Democratic initiatives; conservatives at the rightward edge of the Republican Party were angrier than ever, not just about Democrats in office, but also about what they took to be Bush-era betrayals of small-government principles. With Was.h.i.+ngton now dominated by Democrats, right-wingers despaired that things would just get worse. Not only had Obama promised to pursue long-standing liberal priorities such as health care reform; he came to office as the United States was careening into a deepening recession in the aftermath of the 2008 Wall Street meltdown. Many Americans resented the costly bailouts of banks and auto companies initiated by outgoing President Bush and carried forward by the incoming Obama Administration. And then came the hugely expensive economic stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act pa.s.sed by President Obama and Congressional Democrats in their bid to revive the fast-contracting U.S. economy. Republican hostility hardened, and in some circles "Porkulus" became the mocking shorthand for Obama's recovery efforts.9 But Porkulus was hardly a catchy rallying cry. And how could any effective resistance crystallize with the Republican brand so besmirched and party organs in such disarray?

On February 19, 2009, an opportunity presented itself. From the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, CNBC television reporter Rick Santelli burst into a tirade against the Obama Administration's nascent foreclosure relief plan: "The government is rewarding bad behavior!" Santelli shouted. He invited America's "capitalists" to a "Chicago Tea Party" to protest measures to "subsidize the losers' mortgages."10 Video of the Santelli rant quickly scaled the media pyramid. The rant headlined the Drudge Report and was widely re-televised. Within twenty-four hours, it even provoked a public rebuke from White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, whose pushback only fueled the media fire. Anyone who hadn't caught Santelli's original outburst could hardly miss the constant replays and escalating responses.

Across the country, disgruntled conservatives perked up. The "Tea Party" symbolism was a perfect rallying point since it brings to mind the original American colonial rebels opposing tyranny by tossing chests of tea into Boston Harbor.11 It signifies authentic patriotism, and has visceral meaning to people who feel that the United States as they have known it is slipping away. "I want my country back!" one Ma.s.sachusetts man told us in 2010. "We need to take our country back," echoed a Virginia woman the following year. This plaintive call is perhaps the most characteristic and persistent theme in gra.s.sroots Tea Party activism. As Mark Lloyd of the Virginia Tea Party Patriots explains, people gravitate to the Tea Party when they anguish about "losing the nation they love, the country they planned to leave to their children and grandchildren."12 As a new president of diverse heritage promised to "transform America," perceived threats to the very nature of "our country" spurred many people, and particularly older people, to get involved with the Tea Party.13 When Santelli issued the call for "Tea Party" protests, web-savvy activists recognized this rhetorical gold. Operating at first through the online social-networking site Twitter, conservative bloggers and Republican campaign veterans took the opportunity offered by the Santelli rant to plan protests under the newly minted "Tea Party" name.14 Right-wing radio jocks and bloggers started circulating information on how would-be Tea Partiers could hook up with local and regional organizers to "take back" the country.

Initial Tea Party protests on February 27th drew small crowds in dozens of cities across the country. But after cable giant Fox News took up the rallying cry in March and early April, hundreds of thousands rallied on Tax Day 2009 to reiterate the anti-government message.15 This was the moment when many people we interviewed got involved for the first time. In the months that followed, rallies and demonstrations continued, featuring mostly ordinary-looking older people waving incendiary signs and dressed up like Revolutionary-era patriots. Conservative news outlets amplified the public attention gra.s.sroots Tea Partiers were receiving, and mainstream media outlets became transfixed by the spectacle.

Soon Tea Partiers across the country moved into local organizing. From spring to fall of 2009 and on into 2010, local activists operating without central direction created legions of local Tea Parties meeting regularly, usually once a month, but in some cases weekly. In this book, we pay careful attention to the creation and spread of what grew to be approximately 1000 local Tea Party groups. Their emergence was important, taking gra.s.sroots activism from the realm of occasional outbursts connected by Internet communications into sustained, face-to-face community organizing. Typical was the genesis of the local Tea Party in Gloucester and Mathews counties in Virginia. On May 10, 2009, the local newspaper published a letter from Jean Casanave, who lamented that Americans are "losing our way" and declared that we must "fight" for "our Const.i.tution," for "small government, low taxes, [and] religious freedom ..."16 Tom Robinson, an area man with considerable organizing experience, tracked Jean down to express interest in joint action. Within weeks, Tom and Jean plus a couple of dozen others launched the Peninsula Patriots, whose members meet monthly to hear lectures and plan lobbying and protest activities.17 As local Tea Party cl.u.s.ters formed during 2009 and early 2010, national conservative advocacy organizations and right-wing media stars stepped in to mobilize Tea Party people for contentious August town hall events with their local Congressional representatives, and also planned a national rally in the fall. On September 12, 2009, between 60,000 and 70,000 Tea Party protesters marched on Was.h.i.+ngton DC. 18 Periodic rallies continued through 2010, and during that pivotal year both gra.s.sroots citizens and national advocacy organizations claiming the Tea Party banner exercised significant clout in dozens of electoral races-first in Republican primaries, and then in the dramatic general election contests of November 2010.

After the GOP scored major victories in the 2010 midterms, the Tea Party's national momentum s.h.i.+fted even further to the elites at the top. Several of the well-heeled free-market advocacy groups that had pushed the 2009 Tea Party rallies convened newly elected Republicans in January 2011 to tutor them on how to hold firm, without compromise, for lower taxes, huge spending cuts, and evisceration of government regulations. Dozens of GOP Representatives and Senators joined Tea Party caucuses to exert leverage in the 112th Congress, in which the ideological center of gravity jumped sharply rightward. National media outlets accelerated their recruitment of self-appointed Tea Party spokespersons because producers and columnists were more desperate than ever to have honchos on speed-dial, easy to reach on short notice. And of course the unelected leaders of ultra-free-market advocacy groups based in Was.h.i.+ngton DC were all too happy to speak in the name of gra.s.sroots Tea Partiers, even though most of the DC talking heads rarely attend local meetings or interact with actual gra.s.sroots partic.i.p.ants.

Indeed, one of the most important consequences of the widespread Tea Party agitations unleashed from the start of Obama's presidency was the populist boost given to professionally run and opulently funded right-wing advocacy organizations devoted to pus.h.i.+ng ultra-free-market policies. Along with Republican Party operatives, who had long relied for popular outreach on independent-minded and separately organized Christian conservatives, national free-market advocacy operations would, via the Tea Party, enjoy new ties to gra.s.sroots activists willing to prioritize fiscal anti-government themes. One political action committee poured the old wine of GOP consultants and big-money funders into a new bottle labeled Tea Party Express (TPE), which allowed them to seem closely aligned with gra.s.sroots citizens. 19 Other existing national organizations, such as FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, suddenly saw fresh opportunities to push long-standing ideas about reducing taxes on business and the rich, gutting government regulations, and privatizing Social Security and Medicare. 20 There is a certain irony in these newly formed ties. FreedomWorks, for example, is not any sort of insurgent force. As a multimillion-dollar ideological organization advocating "Lower Taxes, Less Government, More Freedom," FreedomWorks operates out of Was.h.i.+ngton DC and traces its roots back to Citizens for a Sound Economy (an organization founded in 1984 with major funding from arch-conservative petrochemical billionaires, the Koch brothers). FreedomWorks is currently led by d.i.c.k Armey, now in his seventies, who was the Republican Majority Leader from Texas in the 1990s, and has also worked as a lobbyist for many big-business interests. Hard to find more establishment Republican credentials than these. Yet suddenly, in 2009 and 2010, FreedomWorks helped to launch the Tea Party Patriots, an umbrella group that endeavors to orchestrate local and regional gra.s.s-roots Tea Partiers into a bigger-than-life force in the media and electoral contests. And the unelected d.i.c.k Armey, along with his billionaire-backed organization, emerged as a national Tea Party spokesperson and advisor to GOP officials-operating in the name of a gra.s.sroots populist movement. In a twinkling, long-standing and top-down became, supposedly, new and bottom-up.


From a televised diatribe, to periodic protests, sustained local efforts, and the revitalization of national free-market advocacy-the modern-day Tea Party came together in record time, with remarkable elan and force. The pages to come feature fascinating people, dramatic local activities, and pivotal national maneuvers. But our job is not just to tell stories or describe the many parts of the Tea Party. The goal is to make sense of it all, and answer some pressing questions. What is the Tea Party, taken as a whole? How did it revitalize and remake right-wing conservatism leading into the 2010 elections? And what are the consequences for the Republican Party, for American democracy, and for the chances that governments at all levels will be able to tackle the pressing challenges of the twenty-first century? So far, pundits and a.n.a.lysts alike have offered insufficient understandings of the Tea Party in its totality, and most seem puzzled about how Tea Party efforts have achieved such outsized effects on national debates and Republican politicians. We will tackle these issues head on-and try to do so in ways that avoid oversimplifications and crude stereotypes.

Stereotypes are certainly out there. As one woman involved in the Tea Party told us: where "you come from"-that is, Cambridge, Ma.s.sachusetts and Harvard University-people believe Tea Partiers are "a bunch of uneducated, racist, rednecks." This is itself an overgeneralization, yet such stereotypes do exist. And they can be misleading. Tea Party partic.i.p.ants come from all over the country and range from people with high school diplomas or less, to college graduates and people with advanced degrees. Compared to other Americans, including other conservatives, Tea Party partic.i.p.ants more readily subscribe to harsh generalizations about immigrants and blacks. And these views are a crucial part of the generalized societal worries so many Tea Partiers expressed to us. But there is little evidence that most individual Tea Partiers reject normal interactions with people of other races. Organizational leaders jump at chances to invite black speakers, and eagerly welcome-indeed feature-any person of color who wants to a.s.sociate with the Tea Party. Most responsible Tea Parties strive to marginalize overtly racist and other extreme voices in their rallies or meetings. Organizers have told us about their efforts in this regard, and we have personally witnessed deft efforts to neutralize outbursts in meetings.

Additional exaggerations and distortions come from commentators at both ends of the partisan spectrum. Celebrants proclaim the Tea Party to be "revolutionary," but how new are many of the goals and ideas, really? When we explore the pa.s.sions of Tea Partiers in detail, we will see that they are new variants of long-standing conservative claims about government, social programs, and hot-b.u.t.ton social issues. We will need to listen carefully and probe deeply to figure out exactly what it is about Tea Partiers' beliefs and pa.s.sions that is specific to our time in the presidential era of Barack Obama.

Many supporters also proclaim the Tea Party to be purely a gra.s.sroots rebellion, a "ma.s.s movement of ... 'regular' Americans with real concerns about losing the right to live their lives as they choose."21 This view captures only a small part of the truth, ignoring the fact that Tea Party partic.i.p.ants are in many respects even more ideologically extreme than other very conservative Republicans. Similarly, the "ma.s.s movement" portrayal overlooks the fact that the Tea Party, understood in its entirety, includes media hosts and wealthy political action committees, plus national advocacy groups and self-proclaimed spokespersons-elites that wield many millions of dollars in political contributions and appear all over the media claiming to speak for gra.s.sroots activists who certainly have not elected them, and to whom they are not accountable. What kind of ma.s.s rebellion is funded by corporate billionaires, like the Koch brothers, led by over-the-hill former GOP kingpins like d.i.c.k Armey, and ceaselessly promoted by millionaire media celebrities like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity?

The opposite illusion is also there among those who proclaim the Tea Party to be nothing more than an "astroturf" phenomenon, an illusion pushed by Fox News, or a "billionaire's tea party" in which "corporate America is faking a gra.s.sroots revolution." 22 This take on the Tea Party as a kabuki dance entirely manipulated from above simply cannot do justice to the volunteer engagement of many thousands of men and women who travel to rallies with their homemade signs and, even more remarkably, have formed ongoing, regularly meeting local Tea Party groups. The citizens we have met, who spend hours meeting with one another, arguing with officials, and learning about the workings of local, state, and national government-these people do not fit the caricatures espoused by some on the left. They are unglamorous, mostly older middle-cla.s.s Americans. Billionaire-funded political action committees and longtime free-market advocacy organizations are certainly doing all they can to leverage and benefit from Tea Party activism. But they did not create all that activism in the first place, nor do they entirely control the popular effervescence.

At times, to be sure, national right-wing advocates and media stars are handing out a load of bull to gra.s.sroots Tea Party people, who accept outlandish claims a bit too readily. In meetings and interviews, we found that misinformation was prevalent among Tea Party supporters, particularly given their relatively high levels of education. But gaps and manipulative ties between professionally run national advocacy operations and local citizen undertakings are hardly unique to the Tea Party, or confined to conservative politics in the contemporary United States. 23 It is rarely helpful for a.n.a.lysts simply to denigrate the intelligence or autonomy of citizens who believe one false thing or another. What is more valuable is to understand the symbiosis of the various parts of Tea Party activism, and how those interactions strengthen Tea Party ideology and activism.

Considered in its entirety, the Tea Party is neither a top-down creation nor a bottom-up explosion. This remarkable political outpouring is best understood as a combination of three intertwined forces. Each force is important in its own right, and their interaction is what gives the Tea Party its dynamism, drama, and wallop. Gra.s.sroots activism is certainly a key force, energized by angry, conservative-minded citizens who have formed vital local and regional groups. Another force is the panoply of national funders and ultra-free-market advocacy groups that seek to highlight and leverage gra.s.sroots efforts to further their long-term goal of remaking the Republican Party, pus.h.i.+ng it towards the hard right on matters of taxation, public spending, and government regulation. Finally, the Tea Party cannot be understood without recognizing the mobilization provided by conservative media hosts who openly espouse and encourage the cause. From Fox News to right-wing radio jocks and bloggers, media impresarios have done a lot to create a sense of shared ident.i.ty that lets otherwise scattered Tea Parties get together and feel part of something big and powerful. Media hosts also put out a steady diet of information and misinformation-including highly emotional claims-that keep Tea Party people in a constant state of anger and fear about the direction of the country and the doings of government officials.

Gra.s.sroots activists, roving billionaire advocates, and right-wing media purveyors-these three forces, together, create the Tea Party and give it the ongoing clout to buffet and redirect the Republican Party and influence broader debates in American democracy. Our book explores each force and shows how they work together.


Using vivid English and avoiding dry academic jargon are things we strive to do. Still, make no mistake, we are social scientists; our research is carefully grounded in the best evidence we can find. The footnotes are there for anyone who wants to look closely. Sometimes scholars and journalists rely on just one kind of evidence-a few interviews, maybe, or percentages from national surveys. We are much more eclectic, because we are trying both to get a sense of the big picture-how the Tea Party fits into American politics; who Tea Partiers tend to be in terms of broad categories like age, ethnicity, and income and education-and at the same time probe much more deeply by observing real groups in action and meeting and talking to fellow citizens who are active in Tea Party efforts.

For the big picture, much of our evidence comes from public records and news reports that help us trace the goals and activities of national advocacy groups and political action committees, and we also look at the elected officials and media figures who speak in the name of the Tea Party. We also track what has happened to the Republican Party in Was.h.i.+ngton DC and many key states as GOP candidates and officials attempt to harness Tea Party enthusiasm, yet avoid alienating other less conservative citizens.

National social surveys are also helpful. By now, literally hundreds of poll questions have been asked in an attempt to get at the att.i.tudes and social backgrounds of "Tea Party sympathizers" compared to other sorts of Americans-including self-described Republicans and conservatives who are not part of the Tea Party, as well as independents and Democrats who claim a range of neutral or oppositional stances toward the Tea Party. Not all surveys are equally well done. But there are enough of them by now, spread out over 2009, 2010, and 2011, to let us glean important information-not only from the best national surveys but also from some excellent studies of Tea Partiers in particular states. Because national pollsters ask similar questions again and again, we are also able to track key findings over time. This helps us get a sense of how American att.i.tudes have changed as the Tea Party has become increasingly visible, and to learn how the beliefs of Tea Partiers themselves have s.h.i.+fted compared to the beliefs of other Americans.

But surveys, news accounts, and public information are not enough. To make sense of gra.s.sroots activism, we knew we needed to get out there and hear from Tea Party partic.i.p.ants face to face. In the early stages of this research, we visited the nearby Greater Boston Tea Party, attended meetings, talked with people, and got to know the whirlwind 39-year-old leader, Christen Varley. She, in turn, sent out an electronic questionnaire from us to Ma.s.sachusetts activists on her master list. The survey asked about how people got involved, their prior political experience, their age and social background, and the issues they considered most important. We then followed up with open-ended interviews.

Ma.s.sachusetts is just one state, hardly politically typical, and we wanted to get in touch with Tea Partiers in different parts of America, farther from home. We were not going to run into many Tea Partiers walking across Harvard Yard, nor could we get a real-life perspective with our noses glued to computer screens. Without hearing directly from Tea Partiers in different parts of the country, we could easily fall into misleading generalizations or stereotypes. We also wanted to probe more deeply how local people contacted one another and got endeavors going. We knew how valuable it would be to attend additional local meetings, to witness everything from their ceremonial beginnings, to the lectures or discussions they featured, to the tenor of Tea Party meetings compared to other kinds of civic meetings we have observed over the years.

When opportunities arose to visit groups in Virginia and Arizona, we seized the chance to meet with gra.s.sroots Tea Party leaders and members who, almost without exception, were very welcoming and gracious to us. We came from afar, and they all knew or suspected that our political views are different from theirs. But they were still willing to let us get to know them individually-not just in brief phone interviews or hurried snippets at big protest events, but at much greater length at their regular meetings and social events, in visits to their homes, and in hour-long personal interviews.

Just to observe, we also attended a mid-April 2011 meeting of the York County Const.i.tutionalists in North Berwick, Maine, to hear a lecture by a leader of the large Tea Partyaffiliated group in Rochester, New Hamps.h.i.+re. At this interesting event, Jerry DeLemus, co-founder of the Rochester 9/12 Project and Chairman of the Granite State Liberty PAC, explained how New Hamps.h.i.+re Tea Party groups organized to take over much of the apparatus of their state's Republican Party, while also electing many Tea Partyinfluenced candidates in 2010 and pressing them afterwards to remain true to right-wing priorities. This was a chance to hear how Tea Partiers think about the political process at the ground level, as a dynamic organizer from the most mobilized New England state discussed Tea Party tactics with fellow Patriots across the Maine border. National politics also came into view as the speaker highlighted his ongoing interactions with a number of the GOP presidential aspirants gearing up for the critical New Hamps.h.i.+re primary in early 2012.

Through all of our travels, we not only observed real-world groups in operation. We also met some special people. We got to know a blogger and former stay-at-home mom living in small-town Ma.s.sachusetts who, having been active in politics during college, returned to formal politics through her local Tea Party and now works full time at a local social conservative organization. We spoke with a refugee of World War II now living in Virginia, a woman who came to America knowing two words of English and who was taken in by a family she describes as "hippie sheep farmers." One of us (Vanessa) visited the home of a married couple in Arizona, sunbird migrants to the area, who shared not only their political views, but pictures of their grandchildren and stories of their RV travels across the country. And the other one of us (Theda) corresponded over many months by email with a gentleman in Virginia, who later helped arrange our visit to the Peninsula Patriots. When we traveled south, we were invited to his home for lunch and had the chance to meet the adorable little grandson that he and his wife, both in their seventies, have adopted and are rearing.

We found each person we spoke with admirable and likeable in his or her own way. Though their politics puts them toward the far right of the U.S. political spectrum, the Tea Partiers we have met are at once as typical and as eccentric as any other group of Americans you might run into. Indeed, should the focus not be on politics, the Tea Party meetings we attended could easily bring to mind a run-of-the-mill meeting of a homeowners' a.s.sociation, or a Bible study group, or a get-together at the VFW hall or the Elks' club. We hope that as we try to put the Tea Party into historical and national context, we also convey a human story-and we are very grateful to all who spoke with us for taking the time to partic.i.p.ate in our research.

Back in Cambridge, Ma.s.sachusetts, we have also worked with two lively undergraduates to a.s.semble a comprehensive dataset of Tea Party groups.24 Our approach to doing this has been different from the approach used by Was.h.i.+ngton Post reporters in the fall of 2010. 25 They started with lists of local groups offered by national organizations such as the Tea Party Patriots, and tried to reach local organizers. Reporters called up to six times, and counted as active those groups whose leaders answered and provided information on the goals, size, funding, and political activities of their local Tea Party. A lot of fascinating data came from the Was.h.i.+ngton Post effort, and we will refer to relevant findings from time to time. But we have also come to believe that the Post approach missed a number of active local groups. When we have tried emailing leaders out of the blue, for example, sometimes they answer and sometimes they don't-and we expect it might be the same on the phone. In some cases, local Tea Party leaders distrust national reporters and university researchers and just do not answer. Or people may be very busy and understandably feel they have better things to do. In the state of Virginia alone, we know from our fieldwork of multiple long-standing local Tea Parties not on the Post list. So we have gone about our effort to track down local groups using a method that does not require the leaders to respond.

Our team has looked at all fifty states and tracked down every Tea Party throughout the country that has any sort of presence on the Web. By now, most local, regional, and state-level Tea Party groups have some kind of web presence, and many have links to other websites that they consider part of their movement. Tea Party Patriots has done a lot to improve the online capacity of many local groups, and there are strong incentives and resources to help local groups link up. Tea Party websites feature blogs, meeting announcements, and discussion boards that provide a unique window on the people involved in Tea Party activism. We can see, for instance, where groups are located and which states and regions have more or fewer of them in relation to the size of their populations. We can also see which Tea Parties are engaging in local political races, and what news and information sources they consider reliable. We can read their discussions about leading political figures and about the policy issues of the day. The websites also let us track how the small, local Tea Party groups are linking together and organizing at the state and national level. In a few instances, we have even seen how these local groups are responding to our research, as they post messages about our visits and questions! All in all, a tremendous wealth of information can be drawn from the online indications of the Tea Party political phenomenon, and we will use the data where relevant in the chapters to come.

Of course, we could not interview every Tea Partier, visit more than a small number of group meetings, or regularly track many blogs. To ensure that our local results are properly situated in the national Tea Party phenomenon, we regularly check our findings from interviews, meetings, and the Web against broader surveys. In short, we make the different kinds of evidence marshaled for this study speak to each other, noting when information from interviews and observations either fits, or departs from, the broader picture in state or national compilations. Cross-checked in this way, our observations and personal encounters help us to paint an unusually vivid picture of Tea Party activists and groups.

Throughout the book, we introduce readers to Tea Party men and women we have met in person, and we describe what we saw and heard in real-life meetings. We use quotation marks when the precise words of partic.i.p.ants appear in our notes; otherwise we provide a faithful synopsis or paraphrase of what people said. We also follow careful rules about using names. In instances where we visited a publicly advertised meeting, or read about one in the newspaper or on a blog, we cite the actual group name and give the date and location of the gathering. The same is true when we talk about state and national Tea Party and advocacy leaders who publicly speak in the name of their organizations. The ident.i.ties of these people are readily available on the public record, so we use their real names. But in other cases, we use made-up names to protect the privacy of people who sat down for confidential interviews, or who exchanged emails or otherwise interacted with us in ways that presume privacy. In each chapter, we italicize a pseudonym the first time we mention a person to whom we promised confidentiality; and we sometimes slightly change incidental details that could make a person identifiable.

The chapters to come deploy the evidence and develop the themes just introduced. We say much more about the characteristics of ordinary Tea Partiers, how they got involved, and what they think. We lay out the complex relations.h.i.+ps among the gra.s.sroots activists, national advocacy elites, and media purveyors who, together, make up the Tea Party as a whole. Then we probe how and why the Tea Party has had such a major impact on the Republican Party, driving it to the right, and more broadly s.h.i.+fting the focus and center of gravity of U.S. political debates. In conclusion, we will consider what the concurrence of Tea Party outbursts with Barack Obama's presidency means for democracy and governance in the United States.

Behind the Costumes and Signs.

Who Are the Tea Partiers?

Stanley Ames is 70 years old, a retired Air Force pilot and lifelong conservative Republican.1 He and his 65-year-old wife, Gloria, are active Tea Party partic.i.p.ants in a small community on the dusty outskirts of Phoenix. Arriving at the Ames home requires careful navigation through winding suburban streets with names like Dancing Deer Lane, past rows of ranch houses arrayed around a pristine golf course.

Gloria and Stanley are friendly and welcoming, the kind of active older couple whose visits are eagerly awaited by their grandchildren. A tour of their house highlights family photos, artistic snapshots from the national parks they have visited on their many RV trips, and a sizeable collection of books from authors like Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin. In the garage, next to the golf cart, is a gun safe the size of a refrigerator. But the couple owns only three guns, not much of a collection by Arizona standards. Mostly, they have stockpiled ammunition, along with food supplies to last eighteen months. Stan and Gloria want to be ready in case the U.S. economy and social order collapse-a possibility regularly discussed on Fox News, which the couple reports watching for about six hours every day. The home tour ends near a big screen TV, where Stanley jokingly notes that he has revealed what he calls "my secret." In the corner of the room, on a wheeled sawhorse, is a beautifully crafted western-style saddle. Gloria steps in to explain: Stanley, she says, sits on the saddle when he watches "his John Wayne movies."

People in the Tea Party are constantly scrutinized in the media, as well as by pollsters who repeatedly ask Americans what they think of the Tea Party and whether they take an active part in it. Meanwhile, images flit across our television and computer screens, showing costumed people carrying outrageous, homemade signs denouncing the "tyranny" of the federal government.

In all of this, the individuality and humanity of Tea Party partic.i.p.ants can get lost. How, for example, did Stanley and Gloria, lifelong conservatives whose previous activism had not gone beyond voting, get drawn into this political mobilization? Are they typical Tea Party partic.i.p.ants, these comfortably middle-cla.s.s folks who come across in person as charmingly everyday?

Spending time with Tea Partiers at protests and in their local meetings, we noticed an interesting phenomenon. The loudest voices at the protests are rarely those of the folks who organize the meetings. The people like Stan and Gloria who are most engaged in Tea Party undertakings at the local level-arranging a meeting or a carpool, running for the precinct committee, quizzing officeholders, attending school board meetings-are not the types of people who shout. Although the views Tea Partiers espouse at rallies are certainly a distilled version of their genuine beliefs-including some very strong fears and furies-the discussions Tea Party people have at their meetings are much more complex and revealing, as are the accounts they give in unrushed personal interviews. As with any political phenomenon, there's only so much you can learn from dropping in on the most visible public dramas staged to capture media attention.

In this chapter and the next, we look beyond the public brouhaha to the people who have found the Tea Party idea compelling. This chapter locates Tea Party people in the overall landscape of U.S. society, showing that they are overwhelmingly older white citizens, relatively well educated and economically comfortable compared to Americans in general. Almost all are Republicans or conservatives to the right of the GOP. To give a broad and representative overview of Tea Party sympathizers and active supporters, we draw on the best available national social surveys. These studies help us pinpoint the social and political backgrounds of Tea Partiers. But we also delve more deeply, using things we have observed and heard from regular Tea Party partic.i.p.ants to bring to life key points about their life circ.u.mstances and outlooks.


Stan and Gloria Ames are an older, white, conservative couple who can afford a comfortable though certainly not opulent life-style. They "fit the demographic," as social scientists put it-that is, Stan and Gloria are typical Tea Party partic.i.p.ants to the extent that national surveys have been able to pin down what Tea Partiers are like compared to U.S. adults in general. With very few exceptions, the gra.s.sroots Tea Partiers we have met fit the same broad social profile-although each man or woman is, of course, more vivid and distinctive in person than the bland categorizations would imply.

Identifying a Distinct Minority.

It took pollsters and scholars a while to zero in on the characteristics and outlooks of Americans who support the Tea Party.2 National surveys during the first year of the Tea Party's evolution consistently found that large chunks of Americans knew little or nothing about this upsurge. Accordingly, small changes in the wording of survey questions resulted in wild swings in the levels of reported sympathy or support for the Tea Party. In due course, however, perceptions and experience spread in the citizenry, and studies became sophisticated enough to get at various levels of support and active involvement.

From late 2009 on, about 30% of American adults reported having a generally favorable impression of the Tea Party. Reported support bounced around that same level into 2011.3 Included in this 30% are a lot of Americans who tell pollsters that they generally agree with Tea Party positions. But many of these sympathizers may not be all that pa.s.sionate in their views. Vague questions about support or sympathy do not get at the firm core of Tea Party believers, let alone at those who actively partic.i.p.ate.

"Strong" Tea Party supporters, nailed down in various ways, amount to about one-fifth of voting-age adults, or roughly 46 million Americans.4 That is a lot of people, no question, an important minority of the U.S. electorate who probably account for most of the roughly two-fifths of all voters in the 2010 midterm elections who told exit pollsters that they support the Tea Party.5 But we still have not pinpointed those who deem themselves truly active Tea Partiers because only a fraction of strong supporters with heartfelt views claim to have ever taken actions such as attending a rally or giving money to a candidate or organization.6 An even smaller subset const.i.tute the genuinely loyal Tea Partiers who regularly attend local meetings, the people who do the ongoing work of organizing events and following through on group goals.

The Tea Party And The Remaking Of Republican Conservatism Part 1

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