What can we learn from the success of the Tea Party?
By Koldo Casla
- INTRODUCTION: A FASCINATED LOOK AT THE TEA PARTY
- TEA PARTY: MOBILISING STRUCTURES, POLITICAL OPPORTUNITIES AND FRAMING PROCESSES
- CONCLUSION: LET’S TAKE THE TEA PARTY SERIOUSLY
I. INTRODUCTION: A FASCINATED LOOK AT THE TEA PARTY
Between September 2009 and March 2011, I spent most of my time in the US. I lived there, you might say. Only five days after my arrival, I took a plane from Cedar Rapids (Iowa) to Denver (Colorado). Back then, I was reading a thick book on the democratic transition in Spain (1975-1978, approximately). The book was written in Spanish. The man sat next to me in the plane saw it, looked at me and asked: “Italian?”. I answered, he said something else and suddenly I realised I was having a chat with him. I got quite excited: He was the first American I actually met in the US. (This was my first time in the country; I had met Americans in the past, mostly in England; I also met some Americans in Iowa City, but that happened in the context of a prearranged conference, so it doesn’t count as it lacks the required spontaneity of a random conversation).
In Iowa, I had learned the first rule of the first encounter with a US citizen: Don’t talk about religion, sexuality, politics or any other topic that could offend your interlocutor. I was ready for a two hour long shallow dialogue. However, the man didn’t meet any of my expectations. Do not take this as a set of quotes, but the exchange was more or less as follows: “Spanish? I don’t like your President, or Prime Minister or whatever it is. He is a socialist. He is the one that took the troops away from Iraq, right?” “Yes, he is. That’s what Spaniards stood for when they elected him in 2004” “No, he´s just weak. No surprise Bush refused to deal with him after that… Actually, you know what? All Europeans are a bunch of socialists. Although, now, with Obama, we also seem to be socialist over here”. “Socialist? Obama? He doesn´t seem socialist to me… Anyway, I guess you preferred McCain, then” (The choice is either Democrat or Republican, I thought). “McCain? No! He is no better!” I was completely confused, but I tried with my last shot: “Maybe Sarah Palin? I´ve heard that she could run in 2012, no?” “Palin? No! She´s hot, but that´s it. We need something more like Ronald Reagan. And we need to be tough on our borders. This country is getting full of illegal immigrants, you know? This President is very bad for business. We need to lower our taxes. America is getting more and more like Europe! Too high taxes! It´s socialism! I have friends in Germany, they´re in business, like me (construction, he said later; he acknowledged he hired illegal immigrants, because they work harder, he reckoned). And they all agree with me… I like France. I go there often. I love their women. I drink their wine. But I hate their country!”. It may seem I didn´t talk much. My English didn´t allow me to speak comfortably and, furthermore, I was in shock. This was the country where people are not supposed to talk politics to somebody they have just met in a plane. And this man certainly didn´t fit the model I had in mind. The truth is that I remember better what he said than what I said. We landed. When we were ready to leave, he said: “You know, my sons are very much like you: liberals!” I didn´t know I was such a thing. I didn´t think I had given him reason to think that either. Anyway, we shook hands and he wished me the best: “I hope you´ll make big money in your life”. As said, the best he could think of.
This happened in September 2009. The founding moments of the Tea Party date back to February that year. I must admit I hadn’t heard anything about this movement before I got to the US. Actually, it took me a while to familiarise myself with it. I didn´t realise at the time, but the first American I met by accident was a Tea Partier.
As time went by, I met more Americans. They were mostly young graduate students who came from all over the country to Colorado to study political science and international relations. None of them seemed likely to agree with the man I met in that plane. My immediate environment was fundamentally Democratic and Obama-supporter. A few months later, I decided to house share with a construction worker who came originally from Missouri. We were housemates for around six months. We didn´t have much chance to speak about politics. I perceived he didn´t feel comfortable with it (he did fit the model). However, he shared with me some of his frustrations: He was struggling with the mortgage; he couldn´t get another loan from the bank; he had bought his house a few years earlier, he refurbished it and was hoping to sell it for a few more bucks than he had invested, but the crisis had shattered his dream; he got laid off, but could not claim unemployment benefits. By the time I left, he was seriously considering selling his car (he also had a truck he used for work) and maybe also his motorbike. He was in his early 40s, he was very unlucky with cards playing poker, and he was single, all too unwillingly. In his opinion, one single person was responsible for most of his problems: Barack Obama.
I was fascinated. Something extraordinary was happening in the US and I did not want to miss it. I needed to go to the roots of this way of thinking. I decided to watch Glenn Beck’s show on Fox News every night. To my surprise, when I told my university colleagues about my new habit, they all tried to convince me that I was doing something wrong. They clearly did not like Fox News and, least of all, the star of the channel. They tried with arguments of all sorts: Beck is a racist, a hard-core conservative, he is simplistic in his analysis, he would get rid of Social Security and he would even expel me from the country if he could. Interestingly enough, ‘everybody’ disliked Mr. Beck, but ‘nobody’ really watched his show. They rather ‘followed’ him indirectly through the satire of comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
Over time I realised that in order to understand the fundamental transformation the country was going through, one needed to listen directly to the leaders of a new movement: the Tea Party. This movement was one of the key actors of the election in November 2010. The New York Times (October 2010) identified 138 candidates for Congress with significant Tea Party support (129 for the House of Representatives and 9 for the Senate), all of whom were Republicans. According to Karpowitz and his fellow researchers (April 2011), Tea Party organisations endorsed a total of 220 candidates (216 Republicans and 4 Democrats) both for Congress and for State legislatives or Governors. MSNBC (November 2010) estimated that only one third of all Tea Party candidates for Congress won their seats. Anyhow, even if most of their candidates lost their battlers, it is unquestionable that the Tea Party became a very influential force in 2010 elections. In the Colorado gubernatorial election of November 2010, for example, former Republican Congressman and Tea Party figure, Tom Tancredo, got 36.38% of the vote, coming in second place, and way ahead of the mainstream Republican candidate (11.13%).
The real success of this movement is not limited to its electoral output, though. Its impact is more visible in the way it shapes the Republican Party and, therefore, the whole of American politics. Mainstream Republicans now support many of the same ideas as the Tea Party. The debates on raising the debt ceiling last August and the ongoing Republican caucus are but two telling examples of this power. The elected officials whose campaigns were endorsed by Tea Partiers may have lost some of their support in recent months (Zernike, NYT, August 2011), and so far it does not seem likely that Republicans will choose a Tea Partier to challenge Obama in November 2012 (Hacker, NYRB, August 2011; Douthat, NYT, October 2011). According to a recent poll by ABC News and Washington Post (June 2011), both the Tea Party and its leaders are losing confidence even among those who feel most frustrated and pessimistic with the economy. Nevertheless, over the last two years, this movement has been very influential in the domestic politics of still the most powerful country on Earth. Conservatives are now immersed in a process to pick the candidate that will try to remove Mr. Obama from the White House in November 2012. One of the main features of the Tea Party is that they are not univocal. It is far easier to identify what they dislike than what they are in favour of. This is probably the main reason why their voice is a bit less noticeable at the moment. But the Tea Party is not a storm in a teacup.
This article examines the mobilising structures, political opportunities and framing processes that help explaining the birth and rapid growth of the Tea Party as a social movement. It also aims to find out what we can learn from the emergence and relative success of this movement in the United States at this particular point in the history of the country.