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Tea Party study: What’s really behind the movement

The central complaint that motivates the Tea Party movement is government raising taxes on hard-working Americans to provide benefits to freeloaders, says a Harvard political scientist.

The central complaint that motivates the Tea Party movement is government raising taxes on hard-working Americans to provide benefits to freeloaders, says Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol, who has written a book about Tea Partyism.

Put that way, the Tea Party movement seems at once familiar and not all that unreasonable.

Skocpol, an unabashed lefty and a very big name in scholarly circles, talked about the soon-to-be-published book Thursday at the U of M’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.

Theda Skocpol
Harvard University
Theda Skocpol

The research for the book included the use of poly sci reviews of polling data and other statistical approach, but Skocpol and her coauthor also attended many Tea Party meetings around the country and conducted long interviews with Tea Party members. They heard Tea Partiers assert many crazy and erroneous “facts” and opinions about how government works, what President Obama is up to, what’s in the big health care bill.

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Still, Skocpol expresses an unexpected respect for a network that has managed to motivate hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans to become political activists.

In her presentation Thursday, she also knocked down emphatically a few of the left’s favorite excuses for dismissing the Tea Party organizations. For example:

  • For the most part, Tea Party people are not racists. (The exception, she said, is their attitude of utter intolerance toward Muslims.) Tea Partiers are very motivated by hostility to illegal immigrants (and their usual suspicion of big government goes away when it comes to wanting government to get more active against illegal immigration). But Skocpol concludes that this view is motivated not by racism, but by the concern for migrants getting benefits to which they are not entitled.
  • Skocpol dismissed as “poppycock” the idea that the Tea Party is a phony “Astroturf” movement of token marionettes manipulated from above by rich and powerful conservative puppet-masters.
  • Tea Party activists do not hate everything government does and do not completely share the privatize-everything mentality of the Koch brothers or some of the national righty think tanks. When she asked them about Social Security and Medicare, for example, they had an attitude that is widely shared among older Americans: I worked for it, I paid for it, I’m entitled to it.
  • Although there is a complicated interrelationship between the Tea Party and the Republican Party, typical Tea Party members distrust the Republican Party, which they seem to view as part of a corrupt political establishment.
  • Tea Party groups work “through” the Republican Party. They work hard, study the rules, coordinate strategy, show up at party events and use their influence to dump the old party war horses off the ticket and replace them with Tea Party types.
  • The Tea Party members she got to know were not George W. Bush admirers.
  • On the other hand, Tea Partiers overwhelmingly vote for Republican candidates, even if only as a vehicle for defeating Democrats. Democrats seem to epitomize the take-from-the-hard-working-to-give-to-the-undeserving approach to politics and governance that the Tea Party organizations exist to oppose.
  • More than once, Skocpol used the word “hate” to describe Tea Party attitudes toward  Obama. She directly dismissed the hope among Dems that if the Repubs nominate Mitt Romney, who is among the Tea Party’s least favorite Republicans, the Tea Party might grow ambivalent about the 2012 election. Skocpol confirmed that most Tea Partiers dislike and distrust Romney, who they view as “inauthentic” (because he is, she said). But they will without hesitation vote for Romney if that is the only vehicle available for getting rid of Barack Obama.

A bit of data
According to Skocpol’s research:

  • The Tea Party consists of 850-1,000 groups around the country that meet regularly to talk politics and plan strategies for maximizing their influence.
  • About 200,000 people attend meetings. The willingness of members to stay active, stay organized and continue turning out for meetings is an important ingredient of Tea Party success.
  • The 200,000 are slightly older than average Americans (many in their 60s), slightly more educated, and slightly more prosperous than average Americans, although that is substantially because they are older and older Americans are wealthier than average Americans. They are mostly white. More than half of Tea Party activists are religious, but the movement includes plenty of secular Americans.
  • About half of self-identified Republicans are Tea Partiers or express supportive feelings about the Tea Party movement.

Tom Emmer shows up
At Thursday’s event at the U of M’s Humphrey Center former state Rep. (and former Repub candidate for guv and current radio talk host) Tom Emmer joined Skocpol on the panel.

(Emmer, by the way, has lost a bunch of weight, looked much healthier, happier and less angry than when I last saw him in the late stages of the 2010 campaign.)

After declaring that he is not a Tea Partier, he is a Republican, Emmer tried to place Skocpol’s research into a longer context of Repub history.

Ever since the New Deal expanded the federal government into more of a welfare state (expanding federal powers beyond those authorized by the Constitution, Emmer said), Republicans have been divided between hard-line conservatives who wanted to get rid of the welfare state and moderates who believed that the programs were here to stay but could be managed more efficiently by Republicans.

In the 1940s and 50s, it was Sen. Robert Taft, the conservative, vs. Thomas Dewey and later Dwight Eisenhower, the moderates. In 1964, it was Goldwater Republicanism vs. Rockefeller Republicanism. The Tea Party, he said, must be seen as a revival of the older, purer form of conservatism and, as in the previous eras, it contributes to a powerful tug of war for control of the party.

Emmer, by the way, did not like Skocpol’s use of the word “hate” to describe Tea Party feelings about Obama, although he conceded that many Tea Partiers hate what Obama stands for.