Political Sociologists Report on the Tea Party

A new book, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, is reviewed in the current issue of Washington Monthly. The book’s authors, Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, are, respectively, a Harvard political sociologist and her graduate student. The reviewer, Steven M. Teles, is an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins.

Harvard Professor Theda Skocpol and graduate student Vanessa Williamson

Harvard Professor Theda Skocpol and graduate student Vanessa Williamson

From the review:

The left fails to see that the overwhelming majority of Tea Party activists are neither angry nor racist. They are generally quite normal people worried that the hour is very late for saving the values they hold dear: “They are asserting a desire to live again in the country they think they recall from childhood and young adulthood. Their anger evinces a determination to restore that remembered America, and pass it on to their children and grandchildren (whether or not they are asking for this gift).” The Tea Partiers are a peculiarly American merging of radical and right, in that they believe enormous change is necessary to reestablish a nation worth conserving.

The Tea Party rank and file share quite a lot with the Coffee Party:

Unlike many liberal analysts, Skocpol and Williamson show great sympathy for the ordinary activists of the movement: for their willingness to engage in the hard work of politics—attending meetings, learning the rules, doing your homework, banding together with your fellow citizens.

… and there are huge differences as well:

But [the authors] have only scorn for the movement’s elites, who, they suggest, have filled the activists’ heads with “wildly inaccurate things … about what government does, how it is financed, and what is actually included (or not) in key pieces of legislation or regulation.”

Will the Coffee Party Movement ever acquire an “elite”? We should be so lucky …

Critics of the Tea Party frequently accuse its activists of hypocrisy:

While Tea Partiers appeal to the old-time religion of limited government, they see no contradiction in simultaneously singing the praises of Social Security and Medicare, and much else government does as well.

But the apparent contradiction disappears in the context of the Tea Partiers’ actual reasons for calling for smaller government, which are based …

Not … on the basis of constitutional formalism or general philosophical categories, but on the perceived character and behavior of the recipients. Social Security and Medicare are fine, because they were “earned” through work and years of paying taxes, as compared to “other categories of people who have not worked to make their way in society and thus do not deserve taxpayer funded support.”

In other words,

government is fine when it’s helping people like them—hardworking, uncomplaining, non-mooching, self-restraining, religious (but not Muslim!), patriotic Americans—but it’s a threat when it’s helping people who are not like them. Screaming about the debt is really just the language Tea Party activists use to express their fear that the reins of government have been taken away from the people who actually make the society work, and given to a coalition of weirdos and parasites.

That outlook poses an insurmountable obstacle to Coffee/Tea collaboration.

The reviewer sees potential for a constructive outlet for the Tea Party’s energy [emphasis added]:

Hearing the voices of the Tea Party activists who Skocpol and Williamson spoke with, I could not help but think how much good a free market, constitutionally inspired movement could be doing at the real grass roots. Nearly every city and town in America has genuinely noxious constraints on the ability of businesses and individuals to make an honest living. It would be wonderful if some of the Tea Party energy— and even anger—were directed at NIMBY-driven constraints on development, the rampant abuse of eminent domain by business, and the multitude of licensing and needless regulations thrown in the way of entrepreneurs by local governments. In fact, it is almost certainly the case that the worst violations of individual liberty, property rights, and the free market occur at the local level—what the libertarian Institute for Justice has called “grassroots tyranny.” And they happen because, in many cases, so few people are watching.

If the Tea Party turned its watchful eye to the local level, where the really impressive incompetence and corruption exists, it would do three things. First, it would give the movement real staying power and independence from the institutional interest of the Republican Party. Second, it would direct the democratic arts that many Tea Party activists practice at a genuine participatory vacuum. And third, it would help the activists see that some of the liberals they currently caricature could become some of their strongest allies. Myself included.

That’s an effort in which Coffee Party Austin could join—after they get over their disdain for Americans unlike them, and we finish off Money in Politics.

About Hamilton Richards

He retired in 2006 as a Senior Lecturer in Computer Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin. These days he volunteers technical support for Citizens' Climate Lobby (Austin chapter), Common Ground for Texans, (CG4Tx.org), Integrity Texas (IntegrityTexas.org), Austin Rowing Club, and several friends.
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