For the coming years, at least, so argues Harvard social scientist Theda Skocpol in a must read article, “Why the Tea Party’s Hold Persists,” in the Winter 2014 issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. A few quotes
In 2011, Vanessa Williamson and I published our book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism [AWAV: It’s an excellent book], 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.
Of course Tea Partiers are for social insurance. Just so long as they’re the beneficiaries—and not categories of the population they don’t like (“the undeserving poor,” moochers and other takers, etc).
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.
Tea Party Republicans don’t care if they’re unpopular, BTW, because they disdain people who don’t like them (they, the Tea Partiers, being “real Americans”). If it were up to the GOP right-wing, there would no doubt be a return to the suffrage censitaire (I’ll develop this at a future date).
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 the conclusions, read Skocpol’s article.
The article is one of several in a symposium on the Tea Party in Democracy’s Winter issue. I haven’t read the others yet but they look most interesting—and are authored by well-known specialists of the subject:
Republican Leaders’ Two Choices by Alan I. Abramowitz
The Anti-Jacksonians by Sean Wilentz
R.I.P. Republican Internationalism by Leslie H. Gelb & Michael Kramer
Will the Tea Party Outlast Obama? by Christopher S. Parker
The Tea Party and the 2016 Nomination by Dave Weigel