[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
Search Google and Amazon.com for “Tea Party” book titles and you will find a vast outpouring of mostly right wing propagandistic nonsense, including one of the worst books of all time: Scott Rasmussen and Doug Schoen’s Mad As Hell: How the Tea Party Movement Is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System (2010). The tide of Tea Party book-writing turned a bit toward sanity with New York Times reporter Kate Zernike’s useful account Boiling Mad (2010) and Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s thin reflection The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (also last year). Still, Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol and Harvard graduate student Vanessa Williams’ new book is just the second substantive, systematic, and detailed investigation of the Tea Party phenomenon (2009-2012) to appear in print. The first such investigation (I say at the risk of self-promotion) was a volume I co-authored with political scientist Anthony DiMaggio that appeared last summer: Crashing the Tea Party: Mess Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, May 2011. DiMaggio has just followed up with The Rise of the Tea Party at Monthly Review Press).
Skocpol and Williamson’s book is partly dedicated to rescuing Tea Partiers from the enormous condescension of stereotyping. Along with impressive secondary research that included reading a large number of opinion surveys, journalistic accounts, public documents, academic papers and the like, the authors put in time in the field. They observed Tea Party meetings and interviewed Tea Party members (many of whom they seem to have ended up liking despite the fact that they are liberal allies of President Obama – the “devil incarnate” for many Tea Partiers). They also enlisted two undergraduate assistants in the construction of a large dataset of local Tea Party chapters across the fifty states. What they found from all this is something different from the “exaggerations and distortions from commentators at both ends of the partisan spectrum.” Contrary to many liberals’ early description of Tea Party enthusiasts as a “bunch of uneducated, white racist rednecks,” Skocpol and Williamson determined that the predominantly (yes) white Tea Partiers are relatively well-off and well-educated, predominantly middle class/petit-bourgeois (including many small business owners, especially in construction), middle-aged and senior. Tea Partiers might disproportionately subscribe to “harsh generalizations about blacks and immigrants” but they do “not reject normal interactions with people of other races.”
Contrary to many right-wingers’ claims that the Tea Party is a “pure grassroots rebellion” of “regular Americans,” the authors found that “Tea Party participants are in many respects more ideologically extreme than other very conservative Republicans.” They also conclude that:
“the ‘mass movement’ portrayal overlooks the fact that the Tea Party, understood in its entirety, includes media hosts and wealthy political action committees, plus national advocacy groups and self-proclaimed spokespersons – elites that wield many millions of dollars in political contributions and appear all over the media claiming to speak for grassroots activists who certainly have not elected them, and to whom they are not accountable. What kind of mass rebellion is funded by corporate billionaires, like the Koch brothers, led by over-the-hill former GOP kingpins like Dick Armey, and ceaselessly promoted by millionaires media celebrities like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity?”
Still, the authors argue that the Tea Party is more than merely an Astroturf phenomenon in which corporate America is “faking a grassroots revolution.” The word “grassroots” appears dozens of the times in their book (I lost count after circling it the 20th time) as Skocpol and Williamson show Tea Partiers organizing their own local activities without elite assistance or direction
The authors particularly want us to know that real Tea Partiers behind the costumes, signs, posters and right wing corporate and Republican sponsorship (and exploitation) are not a bunch of “little Dick Armeys” who wish to replace all of government with the “free market.” The “grassroots” foot-soldiers of the Tea Party want to retain and fund, not privatize Social Security and Medicare and are attached to many government functions. Their main gripe with “big government” is the role it allegedly plays in providing services to those Tea Partiers see as “undeserving” free-loaders and law-breakers: the disproportionately nonwhite poor, welfare recipients, illegal immigrants, and lazy and ungrateful young people. Tea Partiers are, of course, convinced that they themselves deserve government services and benefits they have “earned” through “hard work.” It all might sound racist (for good reasons), but Skocpol and Williamson want us to know that Tea Partiers are not “unreconstructed racists,” just really conservative white Americans who happen to strongly exhibit conservatives’ widespread belief that blacks and Latinos owe greater poverty levels to personal failings.
Seen as a whole, Skocpol and Williamson argue, the Tea Party is “neither a top-down creation nor a bottom-up explosion.” It is a combination of three separate but intertwined forces: (1) the “grassroots” energy of ordinary hard right Republican Tea Party supporters, driven less by economic anxiety (however real such anxiety is for many Tea Partiers, thanks to deteriorating home values and retirement accounts amidst the Great Recession) than by cultural fears of social decline and chaos epitomized in their minds by the “socialist” Barack Obama and his promise to “transform America;” (2) millionaire- and billionaire-backed right wing and “free market advocacy groups” (the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity and Armey’s Freedom Works, most notably) seeking to ride and channel the “grassroots” rebellion and to push the Republican Party further right on economic issues (taxes, regulation and public spending); (3) right wing media personalities and hosts like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh, who have fueled the fires of Tea Party anger and (mis)information.
This argument is developed over four chapters: the first on “who the Tea Partiers are” in terms of race, age, socioeconomics, and political identity; the second on “what Tea Partiers believe;” the third on the interaction between elite big money backers and choreographers on one hand and “mobilized grassroots” Tea Partiers on the other; the fourth on the role of right wing media hosts in shaping, disseminating, and cheerleading the Tea Party message. Two final chapters examine the Tea Party’s role in boosting the GOP and pushing it further right (so the authors argue in Chapter 5) and evaluate the Tea Party’s meaning for American democracy and the Tea Party’s future prospects in the political system (Chapter 6).
There are quite a few similarities but also many differences between the picture and interpretation of the Tea Party phenomenon presented in Skocpol and Williamson’s book and the picture and interpretation DiMaggio and I offered (from the “far-left”) in Crashing the Tea Party. We also have some strong differences with Skocpol and Williamson in terms of how to understand the Democrats and the Obama presidency and how the “left” side of the (we think all-too narrow) U.S. political spectrum is best seen in relation to the rise of the Tea Party. I do not have time or space here to go into a full comparison or critique in this regard (and it does not seem appropriate to do so in this venue), but I expect that some of the more relevant differences will gain useful airing in today’s salon.
I encourage readers to purchase two copies of The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism – one for themselves and one as a Christmas present for their right wing uncle. That uncle might well stay with Skocpol and Williamson’s highly readable and well-crafted study to the end without throwing it down in anger – something I can’t say with much confidence about my book with DiMaggio.