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The Tea Party and the remaking of Republican conservatism

Fed by ideas promoted in conservative media, Tea Party activism combines participatory engagement and political experience with severe misinformation and intolerance of opponents. How can well-educated and intelligent grassroots activists have developed such wildly inaccurate visions of American public policy?

In rural Virginia, a local Tea Party member – a retired contractor, military veteran and gun rights activist – was telling me about organizing. "It's the Saul Alinsky model", he explained. Alinsky, the progressive community organizer, would surely have been startled to learn that this conservative Republican had read his classic book, Rules for Radicals. Yet, in my interviews with Tea Party members across the country, Alinsky's work was widely known. From grassroots campaigns to takeovers of local Republican Party chapters, Tea Party activists have taken their tactical cues from the heroes of the Left. Which raises some interesting questions: Partisanship aside, what should we make of the Tea Party mobilization? In the age of superPACs, is Tea Party activism a good sign for American democracy?

In our book, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, my co-author, Theda Skocpol, and I examine this remarkable grassroots engagement. We interviewed Tea Party members across the country, visiting their meetings and their homes as well as attending protests. In the end, we found that Tea Partiers combine laudable and effective political engagement with high levels of misinformation and troubling intolerance of their political opponents.

Before we turn to the political passions of Tea Party activists, let us review the Tea Party movement as a whole. Starting in the first weeks of the Obama administration, the Tea Party symbolism was adopted by three intersecting political forces: a robust right-wing media ecosystem spanning radio, television, print and online sources; a Republican Party elite dedicated to an extreme anti-government ideology; and rank-and-file conservatives strongly opposed to the Obama administration. Under the banner of the Tea Party, these three forces helped rejuvenate American conservatism and shift the American political dialogue to the right.

Particularly in its early months, the conservative media were a crucial component of Tea Party activism. The first Tea Party events were often headlined by local conservative talk radio hosts and promoted by conservative bloggers. By April 2009, the national conservative cable news network, Fox News, was deeply involved in mobilizing Tea Party activism.

The conservative resurgence under the Tea Party banner has had important ramifications for the balance of power within the Republican Party. Self-proclaimed "Tea Party" candidates were primarily successful in Republican strongholds, but their extreme views had a significant impact on the ideological makeup of Congress as a whole, speeding a long-term rightward trend for the Republican Party. Once in office, the Tea Party-affiliated House Republicans advocated major federal spending cuts, and were among the most vocal opponents of tax increases for America's wealthy.

But the Tea Party did not just exist on TV or in Washington, DC. In mid to late 2009, participants in the Tea Party protests began to form local groups. These activists were overwhelmingly conservative Republicans, and like others on the right, tended to be white, older, better educated and wealthier than the average American. As of early 2011, perhaps eight hundred Tea Party groups held regular meetings, though many had no more than a few dozen members. The larger groups engage in political activity on the local or state level, but have little or no capacity to hold accountable the national political leaders who have associated themselves with the Tea Party label.

The ideological views of Tea Party elites are not entirely aligned with the Republican leaders who claim to speak in their name. Tea Partiers judge government spending not in terms of abstract free-market orthodoxy, but according to the perceived deservingness of recipients. They are in general supportive of programs they see as going to contributing Americans like themselves. Their ire is directed at the government spending they see as benefiting a class of Americans they deem lazy or undeserving, a definition heavily influenced by stereotypes about young people, unauthorized immigrants, and racial and ethnic minorities. At the nexus of these resentments stands President Obama, perceived by Tea Party members as acting in the interest of the undeserving at the expense of hardworking Americans. At the grassroots, the Tea Party echoes the traditional themes of American conservative populism since the Civil Rights era. Tea Party activists frequently cite American conservative leaders including Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan as their intellectual forebears.

In local rallies and regular meetings, the grassroots Tea Party is a model of active citizenship. These predominantly older Americans, some previously active in politics and others with civic experience under their belts, volunteer to do everything from setting up chairs and handing out leaflets, to arranging for speakers, putting out newsletters, and preparing refreshments. Many groups also hold charitable events, raising money for a local food bank or a Christmas toy drive. Tea Party meetings have a "pitch in and get it done" air about them, like the many clubs and lodges and church societies that made America known as "a nation of joiners".

The willingness of grassroots Tea Partiers to learn about the nitty-gritty of politics is also remarkable. Members often track bills in the state legislature and closely follow the process through committees to floor votes. Some local group leaders have become quite well known in their state capitol, as legislators realize they can quickly mobilize a significant number of local constituents to oppose environmental regulation, gun control, or tax policy.

But along with this pragmatic engagement in politics, Tea Party members we interviewed held wildly inaccurate views of what is in, or not in, public policy. Tea Partiers confidently told us that the Affordable Care Act of 2010 ("ObamaCare" in their parlance) includes both death panels and the abolition of Medicare – although both claims are flat-out untrue. They know process, but flub content – the exact opposite of many liberals, who often have detailed knowledge of public policies but are often extremely vague about how US politics, and especially local politics, actually works.

At times, the level of misinformation in Tea Party circles reached conspiratorial proportions. At a Tea Party meeting in Massachusetts, people discussed the possibility that the "smart grid" (an electrical infrastructure improvement approximately as controversial as road repair) was in fact a plan that would give the government control over the thermostats in people's homes. Where are these smart, educated Americans getting such terribly inaccurate information? Some of these rumours live primarily on the Internet, but another major source is Fox News. Almost all interviewees I spoke with had a favourite Fox News show – and some retirees reported watching as many as eight hours of Fox News a day. Checking the transcripts, we found that Fox News host Glenn Beck had indeed raised the weird possibility of federal thermostat control on his show.

This incident is typical of a broader pattern. The more pathological aspects of Tea Party activism are fuelled by the content of rightwing media programming online, on the radio, and on the conservative television network, Fox News. Understanding the power of the corporate, conservative media in the United States is essential to understanding the beliefs of Tea Party activists.

Conservative news reaches millions of Americans every day. Fox News averages more viewers than its chief cable television competitors combined. In prime time, over 2 million viewers watch Fox, which carries all of the top ten most watched cable news programs. As for radio, Rush Limbaugh, and fellow conservative radio hosts reach tens of millions of radio listeners across the country. These viewers and listeners are typical of American conservatives – older, white, middle-class people. The average age of a Fox News Channel viewer is over 65 years, while conservative talk radio listeners average 67 years of age. Less than 2 per cent of Fox viewers are African-American. All in all, Fox News has an impressive reach into the homes of America's ageing conservatives, and its audience share is unmatched by its rivals. In part because of the massive media consolidation that has taken place in recent decades, there is not a leftwing equivalent to Fox News. Instead, there is a thousand-pound-gorilla media juggernaut on the right, coexisting with other struggling news outlets trying to keep up while making fitful efforts to check facts and cover "both sides of the story".

Fox News played a crucial role in the development of the Tea Party phenomenon. Fox began to cover the 15 April 2009, rallies six weeks in advance. In our research we refer to Fox News as a kind of social movement orchestrator. Given the loyal older conservative viewership that Fox already enjoyed before the Tea Party emerged, the network's assiduous promotional and informational efforts surely made a big difference.

Fox News proved its capacity to shape conservative thinking for years before the Tea Party's emergence. Scholars have documented how Fox News makes viewers both more conservative and less informed. The introduction of Fox News into the cable roster has been shown to have coincided with an uptick in voting for Republican presidential candidates. Fox News viewers are more likely than other news consumers to be misinformed on political issues. In 2010, Fox News watchers were 14 points more likely to believe – mistakenly in most instances – that their own taxes had gone up, and 31 points more likely to believe that the health care reform law passed under Obama would increase the deficit (when in fact it is projected to significantly reduce the long-term federal deficit). Tea Partiers' factually inaccurate beliefs about many policy matters are particularly striking given their relatively high levels of education and their overall savvy about the political process. It is hard to escape the conclusion that deliberate propagation of falsehoods by Fox and other powerful media outlets is responsible for mis-arming otherwise adept Tea Partiers, feeding them with inaccurate facts and falsely hyped fears.

These conspiratorial concerns can seem harmless, but they have real policy consequences. One particularly outlandish rumour involves a shadowy plot known as "Agenda 21". At a meeting I attended in Virginia, a visiting lecturer informed local Tea Party members of the terrifying details. The United Nations and American authorities at all levels of government, it was claimed, are engaged in a communist conspiracy. In the near term, this scheme would take the form of apparently innocuous measures like new bike paths. But in the long term, Agenda 21 would lead to the confiscation of all private property and the herding of Americans citizens into urban ghettos and then concentration camps. "Sustainable development", the lecturer concluded, was a euphemism for the coming one world government.

Having interviewed a number of the Tea Party members in the audience earlier in the day, I expected these well educated and politically savvy listeners to ask critical questions after the presentation. Instead, members bemoaned other local regulatory measures, now understood as a part of this vast international threat, and formed a committee to examine more closely the dangers of environmentalism.

Similar scenes have replayed in towns across America. Promoted by the John Birch Society, a group that once saw the hand of communism in the Civil Rights movement and water fluoridation, "Agenda 21" has made the rounds in Tea Parties nationwide. I saw first hand how these conspiracy theories provoked very real fear on the part of many seniors involved in the Tea Party. And unwary local town officials have had to put important planning decisions on hold when sleepy town meetings are swamped with angry Tea Party members worried about Agenda 21.

In addition to the conservative media, then, conservative activist groups play a part in promoting many of the more implausible beliefs held by Tea Party activists. Some of these groups are as fringe as the John Birch Society and the militia group, the Oath Keepers. But other national free-market advocacy groups, like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, play an increasingly central role in the Republican Party.

How do rightwing advocacy organizations manage to get local Tea Party people to listen to what are often abstruse – or implausible – ideas? Some of the ideas of these free-market advocacy groups circulate through blog networks and get forwarded through email chains. Many Tea Party members we met are avid email forwarders, sending on everything from budget reports to political jokes to a long list of acquaintances, often several messages per day. In addition, many local Tea Parties have their own well-designed websites with notices about webinars, reports, and videos disseminated by this or that right-wing advocacy group. Professionally run advocacy groups also reach Tea Parties directly. Local Tea Party organizers need interesting content to keep their members attending local meetings and to add new recruits. National and state organizations that offer speakers are a godsend for local leaders. In fact, a lot of ultra-conservative advocacy organizations are trying to place their speakers, so local Tea Party programmers can pick and choose. They can go with issues that seem hot in their region, and engage speakers who have earned a good reputation as they make their way from one local Tea Party to the next. This, we think, is one way for politically consequential ideas – including some very strange ones not grounded in facts – circulate among local Tea Parties. Ties with these national groups remain weak, but the ideas and concerns of the national advocates do percolate into Tea Party thinking.

Fed by ideas promoted in conservative media and by national advocacy groups, grassroots Tea Party activism therefore marries participatory engagement and considerable learning about the workings of government with factually ungrounded beliefs about the content of policies. This dynamic helps explain one of the major conundrums about Tea Party activists – how such well-educated and intelligent grassroots activists have developed such wildly inaccurate visions of American public policy.

But this is not the only paradox of Tea Party citizenship. Tea Party groups we spoke to combined a generous, tolerant interaction within the group with an almost total lack of empathy for fellow Americans outside the Tea Party circle. This second dynamic is also crucial if we are to understand how Tea Party activism plays a part in American democratic life.

Many local Tea Parties include both social conservatives, who feel strongly about traditional moral questions, and libertarians, who prefer to keep government out of these individual choices. This is a major ideological divide, but in practice Tea Partiers make a strong effort to understand one another and work together. For both politically pragmatic reasons and out of genuine social affection for other people in their group, they work to bridge the different outlooks within the Tea Party.

Though they work hard to accommodate diverse views on social issues, Tea Partiers freely demonize fellow Americans in different age groups and life circumstances. Racial overtones were unmistakable, for instance, when a Virginia Tea Partier told us that a "plantation mentality" was keeping "some people" on welfare. Many expressed concern that unauthorized immigrants from Mexico were taking advantage of American services without paying taxes.

A sense of "us versus them" along racial and ethnic fault lines clearly marks the worldview of many people active in the Tea Party, although raw expressions of this outlook tend to occur in public political contexts more than in discussions or interviews. Tea Party worries about racial and ethnic minorities and overly-entitled young people signal a larger fear about generational social change in America. Many Tea Partiers talked about feeling as though they had been asleep, only to wake up recently in a new, strange country. "It's so sad the way the country is now," a Virginian Tea Party activist told us. "My children disagree with me; but they will never know the country I grew up in."

The racially insensitive comments made in person were only a very faint echo of the racial slurs that appear rarely but persistently at Tea Party rallies across the country, including in signs with racial epithets and signs equating the Presidency of Barack Obama to "white slavery". Fear and hatred of Islam and Muslims were commonly expressed, however, even in our interviews. One Tea Party activist, for instance, said she had been hearing stories about "the Islamics wanting to take over the country".

Though the racial content of Tea Party comments tended to be muted in our interviews, hateful comments became much more extreme where organized political opponents were at issue. Trade unionists are not seen as having the same rights to organize and exert collective political voice as Tea Partiers themselves. Organized African American and Latino rights groups are dismissed as threats to the nation. And so are Democrats, and particularly President Obama, who is not discussed as legitimate competitor dueling with Republicans. He is castigated as unpatriotic, portrayed as a threat to national security and to a healthy American society.

Again, conservative programs help fuel these racial and ethnic stereotypes. Watch a day of Fox, and you will have the impression that illegal immigrants, criminals, and badly behaving people of colour are overrunning America. Every incident of violence along the southern border is given wall-to-wall coverage in conservative circles, and stories about the "New Black Panther Party", an obscure local group, made national headlines as a dangerous threat to white voters. And, Fox News viewers are reminded, these dangerous minority groups are aided and abetted by elites living America's urban centres along the coasts, people who look down on "average Americans," and who are seen as un-American themselves.

There is nothing wrong with spirited political debate. Vigorous and often impolite disagreement has always been a part of American political life. But democratic processes can only work if both sides share a common set of facts and accept the political legitimacy of their opponents. As we've seen, Tea Party engagement in the democratic process includes a level of misinformation and out-group intolerance that is surely worrisome. These aspects of Tea Partyism have been fuelled by conservative media and national advocates that promoted the Tea Party idea from the beginning. The Tea Party should be understood as the interaction of these three components – the partisan media, wealthy national advocates, and grassroots activists – and as a product of an age of polarized politics. As a result, Tea Party activism is an amalgam that recalls both America's greatest civic traditions and a darker history of fear and exclusion.


Published 2012-10-29

Original in English
First published in Mittelweg 36 10-11/2012 (German version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Mittelweg 36
© Vanessa Williamson/Mittelweg 36
© Eurozine

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