[lbo-talk] Skocpol on the Tea Party elite/grassroots divide

Carrol Cox cbcox at ilstu.edu
Wed Dec 28 17:46:14 PST 2011

Race race race

Red is code wofd for black.


-----Original Message----- From: lbo-talk-bounces at lbo-talk.org [mailto:lbo-talk-bounces at lbo-talk.org] On Behalf Of Michael Pollak Sent: Wednesday, December 28, 2011 7:11 PM To: lbo-talk at lbo-talk.org Subject: [lbo-talk] Skocpol on the Tea Party elite/grassroots divide


Campaign Stops - Strong Opinions on the 2012 Election

December 26, 2011, 9:00 pm

Whose Tea Party Is It?


Newt Gingrich's brief turn as presidential front-runner was only the

latest paroxysm of a tumultuous Republican primary season. What's going

on? Tensions within the Tea Party help explain the volatility of the

Republican primary campaign, as candidates seek to appeal to competing

elements of the Tea Party with varying success.

For our new book, "The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican

Conservatism," we interviewed Tea Party activists across the country

over a sixteen-month period and found that the movement is not the

monolith it is sometimes portrayed as. The conservative political

upsurge has grassroots and elite components with divergent interests

and goals. Mitt Romney, no favorite of the Tea Party grassroots, is

currently pitching his candidacy to Tea Party elites, while Newt

Gingrich and other contenders are vying for the rank-and-file Tea Party


We learned about grassroots Tea Party groups by attending their

meetings, interviewing active members and reading hundreds of their

websites and message boards. In early 2011, these Tea Partiers had no

consistent favorite for the Republican nominee, supporting everyone

from Ron Paul to Mike Huckabee to Donald Trump, but they did have one

goal in mind for 2012: beating Barack Obama. As one Tea Party member we

met in Virginia put it, "we have to get Obama out. Obama and the

Communists he's surrounded himself with."

Craig Ruttle/Associated PressCallista Gingrich, left, wife of Newt

Gingrich, right, both at a Tea Party rally on Staten Island on Dec. 3.

In recent weeks, Gingrich has reached out to these grassroots Tea Party

voters, older white middle-class conservatives who remember him from

his glory days as an insurgent Democrat slayer. Gingrich's aggressive

style and blistering critiques of the Democrats resonate with Tea Party

voters. Gingrich has accused Democrats of socialist tendencies for

decades; as early as 1984, he claimed that a Democratic member of the

House of Representatives was distributing "communist propaganda."

But Gingrich has also tapped into what we identified as Tea Partiers'

most fundamental concern: their belief that hardworking American

taxpayers are being forced to foot the bill for undeserving

freeloaders, particularly immigrants, the poor and the young. Young

people "just feel like they are entitled," one member of the

Massachusetts Tea Party told us. A Virginia interviewee said that

today's youth "have lost the value of work."

These views were occasionally tinged with ethnic stereotypes about

immigrants "stealing" from tax-funded programs, or minorities with a

"plantation mentality." When Gingrich talks about "inner-city" children

having "no habits of working," he is appealing to a widely held

sentiment among the Tea Party faithful.

What's more, Gingrich's comparatively humane stance on immigration

reform -- offering immigrants a path to legal status with the approval

of local community members -- is more palatable to Tea Party members

than one might expect. First, it reduces federal authority over a key

Tea Party issue, a policy that appeals to the "states' rights"

conservatives who fill the seats at Tea Party meetings. Crucially,

Gingrich is not offering, as Rick Perry did, taxpayer-funded benefits

to unauthorized immigrants, a policy described by one Tea Party

activist we spoke to as money wasted on "moochers."

Immigration was always a central, and sometimes the central, concern

expressed by Tea Party activists, usually as a symbol of a broader

national decline. Asked why she was a member of the movement, a woman

from Virginia asked rhetorically, "what is going on in this country?

What is going on with immigration?" A Tea Party leader in Massachusetts

expressed her desire to stand on the border "with a gun" while an

activist in Arizona jokingly referred to an immigration plan in the

form of a "12 million passenger bus" to send unauthorized immigrants

out of the United States.

In a survey of Tea Party members in Massachusetts we conducted,

immigration was second only to deficits on the list of issues the party

should address. Another man, after we interviewed him in the afternoon,

took us aside at a meeting that evening to say specifically that he

wished he had said more about immigration because that was really his

top issue.

Tea Party activists are not uniformly opposed to government social

programs, however. Our interviewees were very anxious that Social

Security and Medicare be maintained. "I've been working since I was 16

years old, and I do feel like I should someday reap the benefit. I'm

not looking for a handout. I'm looking for a pay out of what I paid

into," one Tea Party member explained. Their support for these programs

was not just self-interested; several Tea Partiers said they would take

a benefit cut if the savings stayed in the Social Security fund. One

woman, a regular attendee of her local Tea Party, offered solutions

that seemed totally out of keeping with the stereotypes of Tea Party

members as knee-jerk tax cutters. After suggesting that any benefit

cuts be aimed at those in the "upper income brackets," she went so far

as to say that she "would not mind a tax increase to try to get the

country right again."

Given the Tea Partiers' abiding support for two key pillars of the

American social safety net, it is no surprise that Gingrich's plan for

a Social Security overhaul is aimed only at young workers, not the

retirees filling the rows at Tea Party meetings. But Mitt Romney has

taken a different path, expressing his support for the Ryan budget plan

that features huge tax cuts for the very wealthy paid for with

relatively near-term Medicare cuts.

Many observers have suggested that Romney's support for the unpopular

Ryan budget was a misstep. But considered from another perspective,

Romney is making a strategic move to aim for a different part of the

Tea Party, the free-market elites and funders.

Jim Cole/Associated PressMitt Romney at a Tea Party Express rally in

Concord, N.H., on Sept. 4.

Long-standing elite advocacy organizations that rallied around the Tea

Party label in 2009 and 2010, like FreedomWorks and Americans for

Prosperity, were crucial to the Tea Party phenomenon, providing funding

for national rallies and conservative candidates, and focusing

attention on well-practiced spokespeople to represent the Tea Party in

the media and in Washington. But the national advocates have only

tenuous ties to the grassroots Tea Party groups and are in no way

accountable to the Tea Party at the local level. Their policy agenda is

different as well. FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity have

sought major reforms of Social Security and Medicare for years -- long

before the Tea-Party label gained currency.

Cutting these programs is unlikely to appeal to the grassroots Tea

Party, but local Tea Party members are only marginally aware of the

national advocacy occurring in their name. Asked about national groups,

local activists tended to shake their heads in confusion. In a typical

complaint, one leader of a local Arizona Tea Party group told us,

"sometimes when you sign up for a site, it puts out tentacles," sharing

information so that visitors receive a bewildering array of emails from

other groups.

Tea Partiers also receive their information primarily, or in some cases

exclusively, from Fox News and talk radio, outlets that are unlikely to

turn a critical eye on conservative advocacy organizations. This lack

of connection between grassroots and elite Tea Party-ism may allow

Romney to placate the wealthy opponents of Social Security and Medicare

without irking the Tea Party base.

For both Romney and Gingrich, appealing to the Tea Party is a bit of a

stretch. Both men have been around too long not to have taken positions

too moderate for the new, extreme-right, tea-infused Republican Party.

In particular, there is little Romney can do to make Tea Party

activists enthusiastic about him during the primary season. Though his

claims to a businessman's expertise should appeal to the many small

business owners in the Tea Party, no one we interviewed had good things

to say about anything but his potential electability.

But Republican primary voters, including those in the Tea Party, want

to win the 2012 general election. As one Tea Partier told us, Romney is

"not quite conservative enough - but we have to get Obama out." They

will overlook past heresies, even "RomneyCare," in a candidate they

believe can win the general election.

As long as the big Tea Party funders back Romney's candidacy or stay on

the sidelines, Romney has a good chance of riding out other candidates'

surges in popularity and using his vast organizational and financial

advantages to beat out his opponents for the Republican nomination. At

that point, the grassroots Tea Party members will have little

influence; instead, momentum will shift even further towards the elite

policy advocates. And these well-funded groups, which benefited from

the Tea Party's momentum in the first years of the Obama

administration, will continue to seek their own policy goals, including

those at odds with the positions of local Tea Partiers.

Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard

University, and Vanessa Williamson, a graduate student in government

and social policy at Harvard, are the authors of the new book "The Tea

Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism."

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