Issue #31, Winter 2014

Why the Tea Party’s Hold Persists

To read the other essays in the “Is the Party Over?” symposium, click here.

The demise of the Tea Party was loudly announced right after Congress voted on October 16 to lift the debt ceiling and reopen the federal government. “Finally! The Republican Fever Is Broken,” exulted Jamelle Bouie at The Daily Beast, while Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson proclaimed President Obama’s “victory” over the Tea Party just as “devastating as Sherman’s march through the South.” With most Americans telling pollsters they do not like the Tea Party and its tactics, the GOP will eventually have to pivot back to the median voter, explained Noah Feldman in his Bloomberg column, “How the Tea Party Will Die.”

Other optimists placed greater emphasis on the supposed new will of business interests and Republican Party elders to recapture party control. Offering reassurance, supporters of Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner told the pre-eminent inside-the-Beltway gossip site Politico that their guy was more effectively in charge of his raucous GOP caucus following the shutdown debacle. Karl Rove vowed to block far-right Tea Party challengers in GOP primaries, and the Chamber of Commerce started to make noises about supporting some supposed “moderates” against Tea Party candidates in 2014 GOP primaries.

But we have heard all this before. The Tea Party was supposed to be dead and the GOP on the way to moderate repositioning after Obama’s victory and Democratic congressional gains in November 2012. Yet less than a year after post-election GOP soul searching supposedly occurred, radical forces pulled almost all GOP House and Senate members into at least going along with more than two weeks of extortion tactics to try to force President Obama and Senate Democrats to gut the Affordable Care Act and grant a long laundry list of other GOP priorities suspiciously similar to the platform on which the party had run and lost in 2012. The Tea Party’s hold on the GOP persists beyond each burial ceremony.

In 2011, Vanessa Williamson and I published our book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, which used a full panoply of research—from interviews and local observations to media and website analysis and tracking of national surveys—to explain the dynamics of this radical movement. We showed how bottom-up and top-down forces intersect to give the Tea Party both leverage over the Republican Party and the clout to push national politics sharply to the right.

At the grassroots, volunteer activists formed hundreds of local Tea Parties, meeting regularly to plot public protests against the Obama Administration and place steady pressure on GOP organizations and candidates at all levels. At least half of all GOP voters sympathize with this Tea Party upsurge. They are overwhelmingly older, white, conservative-minded men and women who fear that “their country” is about to be lost to mass immigration and new extensions of taxpayer-funded social programs (like the Affordable Care Act) for low- and moderate-income working-aged people, many of whom are black or brown. Fiscal conservatism is often said to be the top grassroots Tea Party priority, but Williamson and I did not find this to be true. Crackdowns on immigrants, fierce opposition to Democrats, and cuts in spending for the young were the overriding priorities we heard from volunteer Tea Partiers, who are often, themselves, collecting costly Social Security, Medicare, and veterans benefits to which they feel fully entitled as Americans who have “paid their dues” in lifetimes of hard work.

On the other end of the organizational spectrum, big-money funders and free-market advocacy organizations used angry grassroots protests to expand their email lists and boost longstanding campaigns to slash taxes, shrink social spending, privatize Medicare and Social Security, and eliminate or block regulations (including carbon controls). In 2009, groups such as FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth, and Tea Party Express (a renamed conservative GOP political action committee) leapt on the bandwagon; more recently, the Senate Conservative Action Fund and Heritage Action have greatly bolstered the leveraging capacities of the Tea Party as a whole. Elite activities ramped up after many Tea Party legislators were elected in 2010.

Here is the key point: Even though there is no one center of Tea Party authority—indeed, in some ways because there is no one organized center—the entire gaggle of grassroots and elite organizations amounts to a pincers operation that wields money and primary votes to exert powerful pressure on Republican officeholders and candidates. Tea Party influence does not depend on general popularity at all. Even as most Americans have figured out that they do not like the Tea Party or its methods, Tea Party clout has grown in Washington and state capitals. Most legislators and candidates are Nervous Nellies, so all Tea Party activists, sympathizers, and funders have had to do is recurrently demonstrate their ability to knock off seemingly unchallengeable Republicans (ranging from Charlie Crist in Florida to Bob Bennett of Utah to Indiana’s Richard Lugar). That grabs legislators’ attention and results in either enthusiastic support for, or acquiescence to, obstructive tactics. The entire pincers operation is further enabled by various right-wing tracking organizations that keep close count of where each legislator stands on “key votes”—including even votes on amendments and the tiniest details of parliamentary procedure, the kind of votes that legislative leaders used to orchestrate in the dark.

The 2010 elections were a high watermark for Tea Party funders and voters. Amid intense public frustration at the slow economic recovery, only two of five U.S. voters went to the polls. The electorate skewed toward older, whiter, wealthier conservatives; and this low turnout allowed fired-up Tea Party Republicans to score many triumphs in the House and state legislatures. And the footholds gained are not easily lost. Once solid blocs of Tea Party supporters or compliant legislators are ensconced in office, outside figures like Dick Armey of FreedomWorks (in 2011) and Jim DeMint of Heritage Action (in 2013) appoint themselves de facto orchestrators, taking control away from elected GOP leaders John Boehner and Mitch McConnell.

In the latest such maneuver during the summer of 2013, radical-right Texas Senator Ted Cruz put himself forward as a bold Tea Party strategist calling for a renewed all-out crusade to kill Obamacare long after it was assured survival by the Supreme Court and the 2012 presidential election. With his strong ties to far-right funders and ideologues, plus a self-assured, even arrogant, pugnaciousness that thrills much of the GOP electorate, Cruz could direct a chunk of House Republicans to pressure a weak Boehner into proceeding with the government shutdown and debt brinkmanship. Apologists say Boehner was “reluctant,” but what difference does that make? He went along.

After the immediate effort flopped and caused most Americans to further sour on Republicans, Cruz remained unbowed. And why not? After all, Cruz gained near-total name recognition and sky-high popularity among Tea Party voters. He now appears regularly on television, and his antics have allowed elite Tea Party forces to lock in draconian reductions in federal spending for coming rounds of budget struggles. Americans may resent the Tea Party, but they are also losing ever more faith in the federal government—a big win for anti-government saboteurs. Popularity and “responsible governance” are not the goals of Tea Party forces, and such standards should not be used to judge the accomplishments of those who aim to undercut, block, and delay—even as Tea Party funders remain hopeful about holding their own or making further gains in another low-turnout midterm election in November 2014.

The bottom line is sobering. Anyone concerned about the damage Tea Party forces are inflicting on American politics needs to draw several hard-headed conclusions.

For one, at least three successive national election defeats will be necessary to even begin to break the determination and leverage of Tea Party adherents. Grassroots Tea Partiers see themselves in a last-ditch effort to save “their country,” and big-money ideologues are determined to undercut Democrats and sabotage active government. They are in this fight for the long haul. Neither set of actors will stand down easily or very soon.

Also worth remembering is that “moderate Republicans” barely exist right now. Close to two-thirds of House Republicans voted against bipartisan efforts to reopen the federal government and prevent U.S. default on loan obligations, and Boehner has never repudiated such extortionist tactics. Tea Partiers may not call for another shutdown right away, but they will continue to be able to draw most GOP legislators and leaders into aggressive efforts to obstruct and delay. In the electorate, moreover, more than half of GOP voters sympathize with the Tea Party and cheer on obstructionist tactics, and the remaining Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are disorganized and divided in their views of the likes of Ted Cruz.

Speaking of which, Cruz is very well positioned to garner unified Tea Party support in the 2016 GOP presidential primaries. [See Dave Weigel, “The Tea Party and the 2016 Nomination,” page 27.] During the last election cycle, no far-right candidate ever consolidated sustained grassroots Tea Party support, as those voters hopped from Rick Perry to Herman Cain to Newt Gingrich to Rick Santorum. But this time, Cruz may very well enjoy unified and enthusiastic grassroots Tea Party support from the beginning of the primary election season. In the past, less extreme GOP candidates have always managed to garner the presidential nomination, but maybe not this time. And even if a less extreme candidate finally squeaks through, Cruz will set much of the agenda for Republicans heading into 2016.

When it comes to “reining in” the Tea Party, business associations and spokespeople may talk bigger than they will act. They have lots to say to reporters, but they show few signs of mounting the kind of organized, sustained efforts it would take to counter Tea Party enthusiasm and funding. Groups like the Chamber of Commerce have spent decades using right-wing energy to help elect Republicans, who, once elected, are supposed to focus on tax cuts and deregulation. It used to be relatively easy to con Christian-right voters with flashy election symbolism and then soft-pedal their preferences once Republicans took office. Today’s far right is unmistakably another cup of tea. Even as business funders realize this, however, they will be tempted to keep replaying the old strategies, because turning to Democrats will usually not seem acceptable, and it will be almost impossible in many states and districts to mount GOP primary challenges from the middle-right without improving Democratic prospects in general election contests.

Finally, Democrats need to get over thinking that opinion polls and media columns add up to real political gains. Once the October 2013 shutdown ended in supposed total victory for President Obama and his party, many Democrats adopted a cocky swagger and started talking about ousting the House GOP in 2014. But a clear-eyed look shows that Tea Party obstruction remains powerful and has achieved victories that continue to stymie Democratic efforts to govern effectively—a necessary condition for Democrats to win enthusiastic, sustained voter support for the future, including in midterm elections. Our debates about federal budgets still revolve around degrees of imposed austerity. Government shutdowns and repeated partisan-induced “crises” have greatly undercut U.S. economic growth and cost up to a year’s worth of added jobs. Real national challenges—fighting global warming, improving education, redressing extreme economic inequalities, rebuilding and improving economic infrastructure—go unaddressed as extreme GOP obstructive capacities remain potent in Washington and many state capitals.

True, the events of October 2013 helped millions of middle-of-the-road voters—and even quite a few complacent political reporters—grasp the dangers of the sabotage-oriented radicalism in today’s Republican Party. But it will take a long and dogged struggle to root out radical obstructionism on the right, and the years ahead could yet see Tea Partiers succeed by default. Unless non-Tea Party Republicans, independents, and Democrats learn both to defeat and to work around anti-government extremism—finding ways to do positive things for the majority of ordinary citizens along the way—Tea Party forces will still win in the end. They will triumph just by hanging on long enough to cause most Americans to give up in disgust on our blatantly manipulated democracy and our permanently hobbled government.


Issue #31, Winter 2014
Post a Comment

Herbert J Gans:

Yes, but what if the Tea Party does enough economic damage so that disgusted or not, voters will realize that they need the government to move on job creation and welfare state improvement. If and when it comes to that the Tea Party will yet lose in the end

Dec 11, 2013, 1:02 PM
Tina Trent:

So this is what Harvard passes off as scholarship. Note there's no question mark after that sentence.

Let me see if I can summarize this summary of Ms. Skolcol's "full panoply" of alleged research (as opposed to a part panoply): when Democrats get involved in politics, they are "doggedly struggling" and performing football-like feints and noble end runs, all of which are justified because any strategy they employ is justified by their politics or their mere identity. But when Christians, conservatives, white people, and the white elderly dare to participate in politics, they are using cruel "pincers," committing "sabotage" and "hobbling" government, and the fact that they turn out to vote or get involved in any way is a social problem that must be solved by the Democrats and all other good people.

Oh, and they're racist, duped, and stupid. Proof? "They" switched allegiance during a primary season as candidates won or lost: well, that certainly nails the case. Democrats never do that cough Hillary Clinton.

This isn't analysis and doesn't deserve consideration as such. It's merely shrieking "racist" when your political opponents (a) vote and (b) don't agree with you on any issue at all. It is deeply dishonest and intellectually lazy.

There was a time when more was asked of scholars: no more. This is partisan special pleading at best, and a parody of what scholarship is supposed to be.

But hating -- seething with nearly incoherent hatred -- is enough these days, so long as you hate the right people.

Dec 13, 2013, 8:54 AM
Evil Overlord:

While I sympathize with Ms. Skocpol's views, I have to agree with @Tina Trent that this is a long way from scholarly or even journalistic.

I heartily dislike the Tea Party, but this post is more of a diatribe than an article. I expect better from Democracy.

Dec 13, 2013, 10:58 AM
Ron Roth:

The trends driving the Republican Party further rightward for at least two decades, including some Ms. Stocpol cites, and the positions it espouses, tell me that there is essentially no difference between Tea and Republican. The Tea Party is merely more courageous in spouting the outrageous and doomed survival-of-the fittest premise that is the Republican Party's core belief.

The media plays up a supposed split because, self-satisfied as it is, playing the "good German," it seeks to unmask nothing.

Dec 13, 2013, 9:13 PM
Danielle Zora:

Well, I see a reasoned argument - not hate speech. Argument- Although many well known Democrats have declared the Tea Party dead, it is far from dead and likely to persist. Many democrats believe the growing unpopularity of the Tea Party will make it impotent soon. Those commentators fail to recognize two things- 1. who is the tea party- a persistent a small grassroots constituency that has been mixed with formidable players of a segment of big business interests- ie those interests will persist although the are not the majority view and 2, what politics is today- business run with no other organized force to counter and no leadership even emerging in the center or middle or left of either party. This is analysis- not the fantasy of what we want or hope to see.

Dec 27, 2013, 11:14 AM
dave bowen:

Tea partiers are spinelss bigots. they have no interest in honest debate. Look at Congressman Issa who stifles the speech of any witness he thinks is going to disagree with him. They claim they are not racist. The fact that they did not even exuist before Obama,proves otherwise. White racist backlash,plain and simple

Dec 27, 2013, 11:23 PM

I support Tea Party principles. The racist charge is typical of leftist who define their opponents so as not to be forced to debate them. The charge that they want to destroy the poor by running a balanced budget demonstrates a lack of basic economic education.
As the patriots of the American Revolution fought the Redcoats to achieve their freedoms, the modern day Tea Party Patriots fight the "commie reds" who hide behind the label "progressives".
The only thing that ties the liberal progressives together is their hatred of white males, capitalism and individual rights. Wave your red flag until it changes color to white.

Dec 28, 2013, 6:20 PM

So basically PeterP says teabaggers, who are mostly birthers, aren't racists, but progressives all hate white males and are thus the real racists.

Uh huh. And teabaggers wonder why sane, educated adults think they're all idiots.

Dec 28, 2013, 10:07 PM
Jeffrey Ring:

In paragraph three what were the extortion tactics used during the government shutdown? Trying to gut the ACA because they believed Obama lied and thousands of sick people would lose their health insurance and an incompetent federal government would make the situation worse; is this extortion? Agreeing to fund everything but requiring congress and their staffs to be subject to the same Affordable Care Act as the Americans losing their health insurance; is this extortion? Is extortion the refusal to vote the way the democrat party bosses tell you to vote?

Dec 29, 2013, 6:37 PM
Genie Kennedy:

Jeffrey - the extortion tactic was saying "we will not pay the bills we already incurred unless you let us ( a very small percentage of the country) have our way" It does not matter if they think a law is bad.... it was passed and signed and withheld by the USSC. If they want to try to change it there is a process for that... throwing a hissy fit and holding the full faith ad credit of the country hostage because they do not like it... is childish and unforgivable.

Dec 30, 2013, 6:57 PM
Pat Oles:

After reading this short article, I was shocked by some of the comments.

Tina and Evil should read the book if they want scholarship.

The description of the Tea Party's strategy and power reads clinical, hardly pejorative.

The demographics sound right, not race baiting. Peter, think about it.

The bottom line sounds fair--the Tea Party view will prevail unless those opposed earn votes through good governance.

Dec 31, 2013, 7:10 PM
Fred Zaman:

childish and unforgivable? Its Machiavellian.

Jan 9, 2014, 5:09 PM
Fred Zaman:

What Theda Skocpal is describing, it seems to me, is a concerted effort by the Tea Party to de facto deconstruct American democracy.

Jan 10, 2014, 5:12 PM

What the Democrats should do is to start attacking the Tea Party. The Tea Party and its radicalism is what is causing government dysfunction, not the non-existent "socialism" of President Obama, and it's time to remind the American public of this. The Tea Party is already unpopular...the only thing that remains to be done is to convince people to take action and do something about it.

Jan 25, 2014, 9:44 PM
James Conner:

I completely agree with Skocpol's clear-eyed, unsentimental assessment. Figuratively speaking, it's going to take dynamite, and a lot of it, to blast loose the grip the teabaggers have on the levers of power in the Republican Party.

Jan 26, 2014, 11:10 PM

I always find it highly comical that radical far lefties consider the Tea Party as FAR RIGHT. They're NOT. The far right are the John McCain's and war mongers. The tea party are the moderate libertarians and many of them are FORMER democrats.

Feb 22, 2014, 2:29 PM
Nicki Rawlings:

I'm a total outside but not an ignorant one. Can someone enlighten me? Why do I always see hyperbolic paranoia from right wing Americans?

Mar 2, 2014, 8:51 PM
Thornton Hall:

One of two things will happen: the money people like the Koch brothers will come to the conclusion that an extreme right wing GOP doesn't accomplish much and pull the funding.
Or, the GOP will go the way of the Whigs. Why? For the exact reasons stated by the authors: money buys primaries but not national elections and not state wide elections in states that are blue. As places like Fla, Ga, Va, and NC become solid blue the GOP will become a rump party controlling some neo-confederate state houses. Our future reality based two party system will require a new reality based party to represent rural interests in the West where hate doesn't play as well as Mississippi and Alabama (almost certainly the last two states to have GOP officials before total extinction).

Mar 5, 2014, 12:27 PM
Justin G:

Reading this dated post and article makes me chuckle.

Yep the tea party is dead.

That is why Democrats are going to have their a$$es handed to them on 11/4/14.

America is not shifting blue, the GOP is re defining itself right now.

For years both GOP/Dems were full of tired ideas, but recently the GOP has been going back to its libertarian roots, which is bad news for liberals and progressives.

Oct 29, 2014, 11:40 AM

Sorry Justin G but the GOP never had Libertarian ideas at it's root. The Libertarian party was mistakenly invited in under a strategy called "fusion", a necessity the Republican party engaged in as it saw it's base dwindling in size and power.

America is not just shifting blue, it is waking up to what being red really means and it is choosing blue as the lesser of two evils.

Whereas true conservatives sought to limit the size and scope of Federal Government, the Tea Party and it's Libertarian cohort have engaged in a decidedly anti-government strategy that does not resonate with most Americans. In short, most Americans do not hate their government they simply dislike some elements of it and want changes.

The only thing the Democrats have to do to continue to win is to let the Tea Party and the Libertarians run amok. The more you and your ilk talk the more people hate you and rightly so for you despise everything that freedom loving patriotic Americans, both progressives and true conservatives cherish.

Oct 30, 2014, 9:00 PM

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