What's Up with the Tea Party?

Tea Party members are mostly over 50, fearful of the demographic changes occurring in America and resentful of government benefits received by people they see as undeserving, according to authors of a new book on the influential political movement.

Harvard scholars Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson traveled the country to conduct interviews with Tea Party members and attend local meetings, seeking to understand the rapid ascent of the Tea Party. On Thursday, they discussed the findings presented in their book, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, in the Fleishman Commons of the Sanford School. Skocpol is a professor of government and sociology, and Williamson is a Ph.D. candidate.

“Our big finding is that the Tea Party is not just one thing, it’s not entirely top down or bottom up. It’s the integration of three forces:  grassroots protesters; the right-wing media cheerleaders—bloggers, talk radio hosts and television; and the ultra-right funding and political action groups,” said Skocpol.

The Tea Party burst onto the national scene in the weeks after President Obama’s inauguration and by the end of 2009 had more than 1,000 local groups across the country and was the darling of Fox News. By early 2010, the Tea Party was having an impact in primaries, with the first victory in the special election that gave the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat to Republican Scott Brown. In the mid-term 2010 elections, Tea Party voters helped elect the most conservative group of Republicans in modern times, with hard-line stances and a distain for compromise

The Tea Party movement is unusual in that it is decentralized, yet still has succeeded in pushing the Republican Party farther to the right in a very short time. “They are very suspicious of manipulation by national groups. They welcome speakers, but not control,” said Skocpol.

“The only national organization they approve of is Fox News,” which many watch six to eight hours a day, added Williamson.

Looking ahead to the 2012 election, Tea Party members surveyed last spring didn’t agree on a GOP nominee for president, but generally saw Mitt Romney as “not authentic,” Skocpol said.

Skocpol and Williamson found Tea Party members are older, white, middle-class conservatives, generally wealthier and more educated than average Americans. When she attended Tea Party meetings, “I was usually the youngest person in the room and I’m almost 30,” said Williamson.

“It’s not true they dislike all government programs. They have a more complicated view of government,” said Williamson. Tea Party members approved of programs for people who have earned their benefits, as they have earned their Social Security and Medicare. They dislike programs seen as benefiting freeloaders, such as welfare recipients, illegal aliens and recent immigrants and college students. Those freeloaders sometimes include members of their own families.

“They see their grandchildren still living at home, not getting on the rungs of life’s ladder as they did. It’s easy to moralize against that,” said Skocpol. Grousing about young people is “not uncommon,” among people who are 60-plus, Skocpol said; Tea Party members see the world has changed and they don’t like it.

“Obama is a symbol of that change. He is perceived as foreign, not of this country. They especially don’t like that he was a college professor,” she said.

Skocpol thinks the Tea Party will continue to have an impact, although the dynamic of the 2012 elections is very different than in 2010. The Tea Party has become unpopular with the general public, so it won’t be as visible.

“The fears and resentments that motivate them are not going away,” she said. “The grassroots groups have dug in locally, and monitor their legislators very closely and are in constant contact with them,” she said.