What can we learn from the success of the Tea Party?

By Koldo Casla




In order to understand the emergence and development of the Tea Party in the last three years or so one must pay attention to the conjunction and interaction of three sets of factors: mobilising structures, political opportunities and framing processes.

Mobilising structures have been defined as “those collective vehicles, informal as well as formal, through which people mobilize and engage in collective action” (McAdam, McCarthy and Zald, 1996). Kate Zernike, a national correspondent of The New York Times, is the author of the most illustrative account of the Tea Party movement so far: Boiling Mad (2010). In her book, Zernike shows that the Tea Party emerged from an unusual alliance between social conservatives, economic libertarians, Christian nationalists and self-defined believers in the so-called ‘American exceptionalism’. Zernike illustrates what the Tea Party stands for based on the results of the NYT/CBS News Poll of Tea Party Supporters, carried out in April 2010. Some authors highlight the corporate roots of the Tea Party, with continuous references to leading actors among interest groups. In the initial steps of this movement, Paul Krugman (April 2009), for example, made a mockery of the Tea Party as follows:

It turns out that the tea parties don’t represent a spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment. They’re AstroTurf (fake grass roots) events, manufactured by the usual suspects. In particular, a key role is being played by FreedomWorks, an organization run by Richard Armey, the former House majority leader, and supported by the usual group of right-wing billionaires. And the parties are, of course, being promoted heavily by Fox News.

Nonetheless, according to some opinion polls, at its peak the Tea Party gathered the support of the 16 or 18% of the adult population. Another indicator: by autumn 2010, something more than 250,000 people had signed up on the websites of the Tea Party organisations (IREHR, 2010). It would not be correct to simply dismiss the importance of the Tea Party as nothing but an instrument of the GOP. Tea Partiers aim to shape the politics of the Republican Party, and so far they seem to have been rather successful. David Weigel (August 2011) foresees that Tea Party candidates will not win any elections in 2012, since mainstream Republicans “now spout the same ideas”.

But what unites all these people that are advocating ‘fiscal responsibility’, ‘limited government’ and ‘free markets’ in a halo of religious conservative orthodoxy? John B. Judis (May 2010), a senior editor of The New Republic, argues that “the Tea Parties are defined by three general ideas that have played a key role in US politics since the country’s early days”: 1) a Puritan fear of decline, based on the constructed notion of the ‘golden age’ of the 17th century; 2) a Jeffersonian staunch anti-statism; and 3) a Jacksonian producerism, portraying thereby a noble middle class of hard-working productive citizens that are squeezed by a conspiracy of parasites from below. The nominal reference to the Boston Tea Party is of great significance, being a direct action carried out in December 1773 by a group of colonialists against the establishment of new taxes on tea by the British Crown. The obsessive faith in the Founding Fathers is also clearly reflected in the mission statement of one of the Tea Party organisations, the Tea Party Patriots, who:

(S)tand with our founders, as heirs to the republic, to claim our rights and duties which preserve their legacy and our own. We hold, as did the founders, that there exists an inherent benefit to our country when private property and prosperity are secured by natural law and the rights of the individual. As an organization we do not take stances on social issues. We urge members to engage fully on the social issues they consider important and aligned with their beliefs.

The move against social benefits is striking: almost three quarters of Tea Party supporters (73%) think that providing government benefits to poor people actually encourages them to remain poor (NYT/CBS Poll, April 2010). Glenn Beck’s attacks on Roosevelt’s New Deal and the idea of universal social rights are also rather telling of the anti-statism and anti-welfarism nature of the Tea Party.

The mobilising structures of the Tea Party correspond to what Robert S. Jansen (2011) calls ‘populist mobilisation’, that is, “any sustained, large-scale political project that mobilizes ordinarily marginalized social sectors into publicly visible and contentious political action, while articulating an anti-elite, nationalist rhetoric that valorizes ordinary people”. In Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (2000), Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons travel through the history of right-wing populism in the US since the 17th century, from the colonial period to the rise of Christian nationalism and the neoconservative movement in the 1990s, through the Presidency of Andrew Jackson in the mid 1800s and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century. One of the findings of this review is that in the history of the United States, xenophobes (also referred to as ‘nativists’) and economic libertarians are often joined by conservative Christian evangelicals. The Tea Party responds to this dynamic. It mobilises people who believe their country is being taken away by an elite personified in the President of their country. Leaders like Sarah Palin are the best characterization of one of the defining features of the Tea Party: the populist dichotomy between us, the people, and them, the elite, the intellectuals. The anti-intellectualism of the Tea Party also targets mainstream Republicans. In Ashbee’s words (2011), “the gap between the Tea Party movement and the Republican party’s elites is as much cultural as political”; and this gap grew during George W. Bush’s time in the White House. Lee Harris (June/July 2010) puts it this way:

As the Tea Partiers see it, what is most needed right now are not new ideas — we have already had far too many of those. What is needed is the revitalization of a very old attitude — the attitude shared by all people who have been able to maintain their liberty and independence against those who would take it away from them: “We do not need an elite to govern us. We can govern ourselves”.

There is an important point that should not go unnoticed. The Tea Party is not a revolt of the rich against the poor. It is rather a movement of the self-perceived middle-class who are convinced they ‘deserve better’ and feel threatened by an undefined alliance of intellectuals from above and social parasites from below (Williamson, Skocpol and Coggin, March 2011). In this sense, it consists of a heterogeneous social group who adopts a defensive attitude and mistrusts the government, notably, the Federal Government. They do not think they owe anything to the government because the government does not seem to do anything for them. However, this does not mean that all Tea Partiers are fundamentally opposed to welfare state. Welfare programs in the US are perceived as a piece of cake that the majority must give away to a minority that is not deemed to deserve it. Welfare is seen as charity, and charity is something that some give and others benefit from. Lisa Disch (December 2010) writes that the Tea Party represents the American ‘precariat’, that is, people who feel that something (taxes) is taken away from them for nothing (for the subsistence of a few, the ‘parasites’ in the Jacksonian discourse). The precariat does not believe in social benefits because these programs are not a universal entitlement. As warned by Jonas Pontusson in Inequality and Prosperity (2005), based on the analysis of the means-tested shift of the Thatcherite social policy in the UK, the problem of a charity-based approach to welfare is that “over the long run and in a broader, political sense, targeting benefits on the poor is likely to weaken middle-class support for the welfare state and reduce the generosity of the welfare state”. Interestingly enough, when we look at Tea Partiers’ opinions about the most widely extended welfare programs in the US, namely, Social Security and Medicare, we observe that while 92% of Tea Party members (for 50% of all respondents) say that they “would rather have a smaller government providing fewer services”, 62% of Tea Partiers (76% of all respondents) rate Medicare and Social Security as “worth the costs for taxpayers” (NYT/CBS Poll, April 2010). Consequently, when they see the point of their taxes (and benefit from them accordingly), Tea Partiers do not seem that libertarian anymore.

Corey Robin (August 2011) observes an interesting similarity with the conservative attitude of the peasantry during Napoleon’s time, what Marx called ‘the imperialism of the peasant class’ in his well-known Eighteenth Brumaire. Progressives and the moderate left would be responsible for the success of the Tea Party:

And here Democrats like Obama and his defenders, who bemoan the stranglehold of the Tea Party on American politics, have only themselves to blame. For decades, Democrats have collaborated in stripping back the American state in the vain hope that the market would work its magic. For a time it did, though mostly through debt; workers could compensate for stagnating wages with easy credit and low-interest mortgages. Now the debt’s due to be repaid, and wages – if people are lucky enough to be working – aren’t enough to cover the bills. The only thing that’s left for them is cutting taxes. And the imperialism of the peasants.

If one really wants to provide a credible alternative to those thousands of Americans who believe in what the Tea Party may have to offer, it is an extremely bad strategy to ridicule this movement, its leaders and its followers. In Chip Berlet’s words (2011):

When liberals and Democrats dismiss the right-wing populists as crazies and fools (…) it makes it harder for progressive grassroots organizers trying to reach out to broader audiences in the White working class in a way that defends racial and gender justice while appealing to economic self-interest.

Let’s now look at the second determining factor of the success of a social movement: political opportunities. By political opportunities Sidney Tarrow (1996) alludes to “consistent – but not necessarily formal, permanent, or national – signals to social or political actors which either encourage or discourage them to use their internal resources to form social movements”. Based on the conceptual analysis of various authors, Doug McAdam (1996) synthesises the following list of dimensions of political opportunity: “the relative openness or closure of the institutionalized political system”, “the stability or instability of that broad set of elite alignments that typically undergird a polity”, “the presence or absence of elite allies” and “the state’s capacity and propensity for repression”. The idea of political opportunities is much related to John Kingdon’s (1984) famous notion of the ‘window of opportunity’, understood as a (short) period of time in which conditions are settled and may allow policy actors to influence the agenda-setting. The interactions between political opportunities and the other determining factors (framing processes and mobilising structures) are manifested in two ways. On the one hand, we can observe the role that key individuals, like policy entrepreneurs, can have in the exploitation of a given political opportunity through “policy images” (Baumgartner and Jones, 1991), “symbolic politics” (Brysk, 1995) or “causal stories” (Stone, 1989). And on the other hand, “political opportunity may be discerned along so many directions and in so many ways that it is less a variable than a cluster of variables – some more readily observable than others” (Tarrow, 1988). In this sense, comparative studies have shown that social movements have framed their claims in different ways in front of similar political opportunities, which opens the door to “framing political opportunities” (Gamson and Meyer, 1996).

Political opportunities for the emergence of a right-wing populist movement in the US have not been scarce over the last three years. First, the US is suffering badly the effects of the financial and economic crisis, with unemployment rising to nearly 10%. Second, when Obama opened the doors of the White House for the first time, the housing bubble had already burst and very expensive bailouts were already in place. Third, in 2008 Barack Obama ran a progressive campaign, promising hope above anything else, assuring to take America ‘out of the darkness’, ‘challenging the money’, providing universal health coverage for all, with a multilateral approach to foreign policy, etc., in sum, ‘a change we can believe in’.

As pointed out, the reduction of taxes for the wealthiest (beginning in early 1980s under Reagan’s Presidency) did not help promoting the idea that welfare state is something worth fighting for. Obama also ran as a candidate against the establishment, which partly resembles  some of the messages spouted by Tea Party candidates in the 2010 midterm election. In the current crisis, the confidence in the two mainstream political parties has lowered dramatically. As Seymour Lipset noted (1972), as dissatisfaction with the political process or public policies increases, social movements become the instrument to communicate this dissatisfaction to the establishment and the government.

Up until November 2010, Democrats had the majority of the seats in Congress. Tea Partiers perceived Obama as a threat, as an extremist progressive Democrat and, in a clearly inflated way, a socialist. It is in this context of alleged partisanship when the Tea Party emerged. One could have expected that after the midterm elections of 2010, when Democrats lost the House of Representatives and just retained control of Senate, the influence of the Tea Party would have declined, since both Republicans and Democrats would have had to work in a bipartisan way. However, there is no clear empirical evidence of any lesser success of the Tea Party with a hung Congress, although the situation may be changing during the Republican caucus, since it is now when American conservatives are being called to pick the best candidate to defeat Barack Obama in the presidential election of 2012.

The third determining factor of the success of a social movement is the framing process, defined by McAdam, McCarthy and Zald (1996) as “the conscious strategic efforts by groups of people to fashion shared understandings of the world and of themselves that legitimate and motivate collective action”. Zald (1996) adds that “frames are the specific metaphors, symbolic representations, and cognitive cues used to render or cast behavior and events in an evaluative mode and to suggest alternative modes of action”. In Alison Brysk’s terms (1995), “symbolically mobilized political actors can create new political opportunities by revealing, challenging, and changing narratives about interests and identities”. Strategic framing is a three-phased process of agenda setting: problem identification, policy proposal, and politicization of the sigue (Kingdon, 1984). The formation of policy agendas depends upon the “conversion of difficulties into problems”, which requires “causal stories” in order to attribute cause, blame and responsibility (Stone, 1989). The actual challenge for a social movement is to “align” or “extend” their issue frame in such a way that it “resonates” with the experiences and the empirical context of the targeted audience (Snow et al, 1986). This issue alignment is necessarily done through language and messages or, in a word, through discourse, deploying concepts and symbols that are already in place and are widely accepted in a certain political culture. Almond and Verba (1963) defined ‘political culture’ as “the specifically political orientations –attitudes toward the political system and its various parts, and attitudes toward the role of the self in the system”.

In his study of conservatism in US history, Alan Brinkley (1994) observes a lack of ideological consistency and clarity. Yet, in his view, one of the constant features of the conservative movement in American conservatism since the late 18th century is the anti-statist liberal approach. This liberal (or sometimes libertarian) approach is reinforced by regionalism and, particularly over the last decades, by a rise of Christian fundamentalism from a segment of the American right. In sum, American conservatism is the story of a political culture that combines social conservatism and economic libertarianism. This construction successfully resonates with the majority of the American population and combines a strong faith in free market with a set of religious dogmas, which are often at odds with scientific rationalism. (About religious views of the runners in the Republican caucus, see Bill Keller, NYT, August 2011). The government is seen as a potential or actual threat both for private property and for public morality. In The Democratic Wish (1990), James Morone writes that this diagnostic frame finds its roots in the colonial period: “While Europeans sometimes mobilized to win rights from the state, Americans revolted to block the crown from meddling with rights they were already exercising”. Anti-statism and the anti-government discourse may be deemed a manifestation of so-called ‘American exceptionalism’.

Tea Party leaders are the strongest promoters of the neoliberal exit to the current crisis. As mentioned earlier, it remains unclear whether the ‘precariat’ followers of the Tea Party movement truly support this ideology. Nonetheless, the strategic frame chosen by Tea Party spin doctors like Ron Paul (defined by The Atlantic in November 2010 as “the Tea Party’s brain”) is called neoliberalism. In conjunction with the mantra of the reduction of the size of government and the confidence in public austerity, Tea Party public voices believe that the state should never provide and guarantee access to healthcare. In the worst case scenario, charities (‘the Church’) will respond.

In other words, Tea Party leaders (the question remains unclear regarding the followers) adopt a neoliberal approach, which is based on the criminalisation of the poor. As noted by Kate Donald and Smriti Upadhyay (August 2011):

Neo-liberalism’s glorification of self-sufficiency and ‘responsibility’ has fuelled the idea that poverty results from an individual’s unwillingness to remedy his or her economic situation. As a result, social policy is crafted in such a way that those in need must earn rather than be entitled to state support.

Due to the diverse composition of the mobilising structures of the movement, even among Tea Partiers one can observe disagreements and inconsistencies. Foreign affairs are probably the policy arena where these contradictions are most visible. Walter Russell Mead (March/April 2011) identifies two trends within the Tea Party: a Palinite wing (after Sarah Palin), truly nationalist, vigorous and much more willing to use force, on the one hand, and a Paulite wing (after Ron Paul), isolationist and in favour of a reduction of the profile of the US in the world stage. In Russell Mead’s view, there is a confrontation between these two groups, but Palinites are more likely to win the battle, “because the commonsense reasoning of the American people now generally takes as axiomatic something that seemed much more controversial in the 1930s: that security at home cannot be protected without substantial engagement overseas”. There is a lack of clarity on matters of foreign affairs among candidates to challenge Obama on the Republican side (James Traub, Foreign Policy, November 2011; Michael Shear, NYT, November 2011), and their comments on the intervention in Libya are a very good indicator of their confusion (Sarah Wheaton, NYT, August 2011). The way Ron Paul was booed in a Republican debate last September may show Russell Mead to be right.

Anyhow, there is something that unites both branches of the Tea Party, and that is their shared fundamental aversion towards liberal internationalism, incarnated by President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), from whom President Obama is deemed to get inspiration for his foreign policy.

Be that as it may, these inconsistencies and obscurities on foreign policy are significant evidence of the quandary Tea Partiers are in at the moment. Over the last three years they have demonstrated, lobbied, shouted and voted against Barack Obama and the so-called ‘bureaucrats of Washington’. Their plan worked in the midterm elections, since Tea Partiers managed to replace some of those bureaucrats with candidates that, supposedly, were not corrupted by the system. However, at this point they face the challenge of proposing a workable strategy to defeat Obama in a year from now. Republicans simply cannot win the next election with rhetorical questions and wordy assertions about American exceptionalism and the implicit message left by the Founding Fathers for the generations to come. For the time being, several conservatives are running in the Republican caucus under the undefined umbrella of the Tea Party. Tea Partiers are now supposed to agree on some messages, some policies, some plans… something to convince the majority of the conservative population in a few weeks and the majority of the country in twelve months. Will they succeed? Or is this the end of the Tea Party as we know it? The answer will not remain hidden for long.




5 thoughts on “IT ISN´T A STORM IN A TEACUP (Part II)

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