The Tea Party is a marvel of modern American politics. What began in February 2009 with a CNBC commentator’s tirade against federal support for borrowers with underwater home loans quickly built into a movement that altered the 2010 congressional elections and is now shaping the 2012 Republican presidential field.
In a new book, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (Oxford University Press), Thomas professor of government and sociology Theda Skocpol and graduate student Vanessa Williamson offer one of the first comprehensive, empirical analyses of this phenomenon, which Skocpol calls “an innovative version” of “recurrent populist upsurges on the right.” The authors draw on existing surveys of Tea Partiers and observation of their events, as well as on the in-depth interviews they conducted with dozens of Tea Party activists. Unlike surveys, which Skocpol says ask questions with “precooked” answers, these hour-long interviews allowed Tea Party members to speak for themselves. The researchers could note the words and phrases interviewees used repeatedly, such as “freeloaders” and “take our country back.” She and Williamson could also “hear the emotion,” she adds. “You hear what they’re afraid of, what they’re hopeful about.”
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But the Tea Party is more than these grass-roots activists. Skocpol and Williamson include in the movement conservative media outlets, such as Fox News, and an elite group of big Republican donors and well-funded free-market advocacy organizations, such as Americans for Prosperity, co-founded by billionaire David H. Koch. These parts “sometimes work at cross purposes and sometimes work together,” Skocpol explains. Thus grass-roots members may support Social Security, while the advocacy groups seek to radically restructure social programs. Skocpol says such groups associated themselves with the Tea Party to capitalize on the grass-roots enthusiasm, but promote their own agendas.