Some date the advent of the tea party to 2007, when then-presidential candidate Ron Paul held a “tax day tea party” fundraiser to fill his campaign coffers. But the broader movement began five years ago last week — shortly after Barack Obama was sworn into office.
Theda Scokpol is a sociologist and political scientist at Harvard, and co-author, with Vanessa Williams, of The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. BillMoyers.com spoke with her about the movement’s past influence over the Republican Party and its future. Below is a transcript that’s been lightly edited for clarity.
Joshua Holland: There have been a number of recent columns proclaiming the death of the tea party — or its diminished influence, at least — and they generally cite the passage of a clean debt limit hike, or the passage of a budget deal. We’ve heard about how the US Chamber of Commerce and the so-called moderate wing of the Republican Party are fighting back against tea party extremism. What’s your view?
Theda Skocpol: I think it’s true that we’re seeing some activism on the part of business Republicans who used to completely control the Republican Party, with an occasional sop to Christian right activists. They woke up to find themselves with about half of Republican lawmakers devoted to a no-compromise, no-bargaining style of politics, and some very hefty right-wing funders who are mounting challenges to traditional conservative Republicans. So we’re seeing more of a two-sided battle, rather than simply the tea party calling the tune.
But we shouldn’t get too carried away here, because already the Republican Party has galloped to the right on a whole range of issues that grassroots and elite tea party forces are promoting. We’re not really seeing compromises on anything except preventing the country from plummeting into an international financial crisis. And we’re seeing no movement on cooperation with Barack Obama on immigration reform, or a whole series of other things that are quite popular with the public but which the tea party opposes.
Joshua Holland: How has the tea party wielded such influence? Liberal activists certainly don’t have that kind of sway over the Democratic party.
Skocpol: That’s right. It’s an interesting phenomenon. I describe it as a pincers movement. Even though the tea party is a label we all use, it’s really a combination of forces pushing on Republican officeholders and Republican candidates. Part of those forces are aroused and fearful, older, white, conservative-minded activists — who are good citizens in the sense that they turn out for primary elections, they pay attention, they write letters, they put pressure on their representatives. They’re a force that Republican officeholders and candidates have to worry about in primary elections, if no other time.
In addition to that, there are these opulently funded ultra-right ideological operations that are pushing on the same Republican candidates and officeholders from the top and can send money to challenge them in primaries if they don’t follow the policy lines they prefer.
Holland: We know from various polls that some share of Americans — or some share of Republicans — have a favorable view of the tea party. Do we have a sense of the number of people who we could properly call “activists” — those who are really engaged in the tea party movement?
Skocpol: Vanessa Williamson and I, in our assessment of the situation back in 2011, estimated that the 900 regularly meeting local tea parties were personned by about 200,000 activists who went well beyond expressing sympathy, or even sending an occasional financial contribution or note or letter. They actually organized these groups, which is really an impressive accomplishment.
Holland: I want to ask you two related questions. First, what do you think is the biggest misconception liberals have about the tea parties?
Skocpol: There are two. First, I think many people on the left have wanted to comfort themselves with the idea that this is just the Koch brothers creating a fake movement and sending checks to grassroots activists. And that’s just not correct. The Koch brothers and other ultra-right billionaires are certainly very, very active, and they matter, but it’s not true that they completely control or that they completely created the grassroots activists.
The other misconception that more moderate liberals usually have is that because the tea party label is not popular with most Americans, that means it’s dying. But that’s not how this movement operates. This is leverage on one of the two major political parties, and it’s minority leverage, but it’s very effective.
Holland: What do you think is the thing that neutral political journalists tend to get wrong?
Skocpol: I think there was the sense that once Barack Obama was reelected, which was certainly a defeat for Republicans of all stripes, including the tea partiers, that meant this thing was going away. And then, when the government shut down led to a temporary drop in Republican popularity in the polls, they said the movement is going away. It’s just a failure to understand that majority expressions of opinions in surveys are not the same thing as political power.
Holland: There have been countless articles that claim that they eschew social conservatism for this laser-like focus on economic issues. Do you think that’s an accurate characterization?
Skocpol: No. We found, both in our visiting of local tea party groups and interviews with people — and in our analysis of national survey data — that about half of tea party sympathizers and activists are also Christian conservatives. And Christian conservatives, with their commitment to making abortion illegal and fighting gay rights, represent a deeper phenomenon. Some of them will call themselves tea partiers and attend tea party meetings. They may sit in the same room with people who are not particularly religious or who are secular. So they’re not the entirety of the tea party, but they’re there, and they’re still pushing elected Republicans, and elected Republicans often find it easier to vote on anti-abortion measures than on anything else.
Holland: In The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History, historian and journalist Jill Lepore argued that the tea partiers have been fed a version of our history that’s basically 180 degrees away from reality. For them, the framers were like Glenn Beck; they were diehard Christians, they shared a strong belief in states’ rights. And none of this is remotely the case. Is that consistent with your research, and to what degree does that belief system animate the movement?
Skocpol: You know, all social movements like to align themselves with potent historical symbols. The very name of the tea party invokes a very potent symbol, the tossing of imported tea into Boston Harbor. There’s no question that, strictly speaking, tea partiers’ beliefs about the Constitution resemble something closer to the anti-federalists of the founding era — and the secessionists and nullification supporters of the era leading into the Civil War. But where I depart from Professor Lepore is that she wrote as if it were something special to the tea party. I don’t think the right way to understand the uses of history by social movements is to get into the weeds about whether they’re entirely accurate in the sense that would pass muster in a Harvard history seminar. You have to understand this is symbolic language about who “we” are and who “they” are. And what tea partiers are saying is, “We are the real Americans, and they — the Barack Obama supporters — are not really Americans.”
Holland: Do you think that it’s trivializing to look at those older tea party members saying “keep government out of our Medicare” that kept us from understanding this movement?
Skocpol: Definitely. Vanessa and I did something that nobody else has done. In addition to pulling together a lot of public information and using the best journalism and the best national surveys, we managed, in three regions of the country, to sit down for confidential face-to-face interviews with tea party people. And that gave us a setting in which we could hear the tone of what they were saying, get into the nuances and find out things that might not be obvious from public demonstrations where a few people are carrying angry signs. We asked people about Social Security, Medicare and veteran’s benefits. Tea partiers are almost all either on Medicare, Social Security or veteran’s benefits — or about to be. And like most other Americans, they tend to believe these are legitimate programs, and they know they are tax-funded public programs. They’re not deluded about that.
So what they oppose is public spending — and taxation to support public spending — on ‘them,’ on the moochers, on the freeloaders. And, like all conservative populist movements, when you listen to what they’re saying, the moochers and the freeloaders are often people of color and low-income workers. But we also discovered that for many of them, the moochers are young people, including at times their own grandsons and granddaughters.
Holland: Now, I’m going to ask you to gaze into a crystal ball for a moment. This movement has been highly effective for advancing the interests of deep-pocketed conservative individuals and organizations. Do you think they’re going to be a permanent feature in American politics or will they die off?
Skocpol: Well, the top concerns of grassroots tea partiers and the top concerns of elite funders are not exactly the same. For example, elite funders want to privatize and do away with Social Security and Medicare. Grassroots tea partiers are on Social Security and Medicare and consider these to be legitimate programs. That particular contradiction was squared by Congressman Paul Ryan when he came up with a scheme to privatize Medicare for people under age 55.
A deeper contradiction between many grassroots tea partiers, or pretty much all of them, and some, but not all, of the elite funders, is over immigration. We found that grassroots tea partiers are highly aroused about immigration. They believe that most immigrants are undocumented or illegal and they want them to be rounded up and sent back. They are fiercely opposed to a legal route to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented. Elite funders are partly in that camp — Heritage Action, for example — but the Koch brothers’ organization, Americans for Prosperity, favors some kind of immigration reform bargain.
Now, will they still be around? You can bet that those elite funders will still be around. They’re not going anywhere. The activists are committed, organized, fiercely aroused people, but they are older. And they’re not recruiting others, so they’re not going to last forever.
But they’re not standing down anytime soon.