Only hard-working Americans need apply

By Chrystia Freeland
July 8, 2011

What does the Tea Party want? As the debt ceiling debate rages in Washington, that should be the central question in U.S. political discourse. After all, it is the rise of the Tea Party that revitalized the Republican Party in 2009 and gave it the muscle to deliver a “shellacking” to the Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections. And it is the radicalism of the Tea Party and the freshman legislators it elected that is often blamed for the uncompromising stance of the Republicans in the current budget negotiations.

That’s why “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” a recent study of the Tea Party by Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist, and Vanessa Williamson and John Coggin, two graduate students, is so important. An expanded version of the paper, which appeared this spring in the journal Perspectives on Politics, will be published as a book by the Oxford University Press later this year.

Ms. Skocpol is an unashamed progressive, but what is striking about her team’s work is its respect for the Tea Party and its members. “Commentators have sometimes noted the irony that these same Tea Partiers who oppose ‘government spending’ are themselves recipients of Social Security,” the paper notes. “Don’t they know these are ‘big government’ programs?”

The usual assumption of the news media elites is that the Tea Party’s worldview is inchoate or just plain uninformed. “I think the pundit class tends to treat popular ideologies as products of ignorance,” Ms. Skocpol told me. But when she and her colleagues delved deeper, including distributing questionnaires to Tea Party activists and interviewing many of them, the scholars found that, “Rather than assume ignorance, we should recognize that what appear to be contradictory or uninformed views of federal government programs make better sense once we understand how Tea Party activists view themselves in relation to other groups in society.”

When it comes to the central issue in U.S. political life today — the size of government and its proper role — Ms. Skocpol and her colleagues found the Tea Partiers had a clear and coherent point of view, but one that does not fully jibe with the orthodoxies of libertarian ideologues or of elite, ultraconservative, Republican Party doctrine.

The central tension for the Tea Party grass roots isn’t between the Big Brother state and the freedom-loving individual, or between inefficient government spending and effective free markets. Instead, Ms. Skocpol and her fellow investigators argue that “Tea Partiers judge entitlement programs not in terms of abstract free-market orthodoxy, but according to the perceived deservingness of recipients.” The fundamental distinction for them is not state vs. individual, it is the division of the United States into “workers” vs. “people who don’t work.”

Some of those “people who don’t work” are the young. Deficit hawks on the think tank circuit like to talk about ballooning government spending on Social Security and Medicare— programs that benefit the elderly — as “generational theft.” But the Tea Party rank and file, 70 percent to 75 percent of whom are over 45, are concerned about a very different generational struggle.

This is a revolt of the grandparents’ generation — at least the conservative grandparents — and they are worried the feckless youth are taking over the country and emptying the state’s coffers. These young “freeloaders” include the Tea Partiers’ own relatives. “Charles” told the researchers, “My grandson, he’s 14 and he asked, ‘Why should I work, why can’t I just get free money?”’ “Nancy” complained about a nephew who had “been on welfare his whole life.”

“The conditions for young adults to establish themselves have changed radically,” Ms. Skocpol told me. “It is harder for young adults. They may live at home longer. And that manifests itself in ways that are easy to condemn morally. The older generation is having a little trouble understanding what is happening to their children and especially grandchildren.”

The other group of government-supported nonworkers the Tea Party fears is illegal immigrants. The Harvard scholars found immigration to be a core, and highly emotive, Tea Party issue, even in Massachusetts, which has relatively low levels of illegal immigration and no foreign borders.

This impassioned opposition to illegal immigrants is often equated with racism, but Ms. Skocpol and her colleagues take great pains to point out that the Massachusetts Tea Partiers, whom they studied most closely, are vocally and actively opposed to overt racism. A racist poster to their Web site was publicly reprimanded and a plan was made to take down racist signs at a rally (though, in the event, the researchers didn’t spot any that needed removing). For the Tea Partiers, the major intellectual distinction isn’t between black and white — although that is the color of most of them — it is between deserving, hard-working citizen and unauthorized, foreign freeloader.

The Harvard scholars’ careful parsing of the thinking of the Tea Party has some important political implications. The first is that there is a latent but potentially vast divide between the grass roots and the conservative elite on the United States’ most important fiscal issue — the twin entitlements of Social Security and Medicare. Cutting these programs is a core tenet of faith for the party’s funders and its intellectuals. But the Tea Party’s rank and file views them as earned benefits that belong to hard-working Americans as surely as do their homes and private savings.

What makes this conclusion particularly persuasive is its timing — Ms. Skocpol and her team reached this view months before Kathy Hochul’s surprise victory in the May special election in New York State, an upset largely driven by the conservative base’s fears that the Republicans in Washington wanted to partially privatize Medicare.

The second take-away is for the Democrats, particularly the technocrats among them. It has become conventional wisdom, including on the left, that the way to make social welfare programs affordable is to direct them at the people who really need them. If politics were a math exercise, that view would make a lot of sense.

But Ms. Skocpol and her colleagues’ study of the Tea Party suggests that the government spending programs that earn widespread, long-term public support, including among people with strongly conservative views, are those that are perceived to be both universal and deserved. Helping the poor is well and good, but when times get tough the institutions we are willing to pay for are those that assist virtuous, hard-working people — in other words, ourselves.

8 comments

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The simple mention of “Effective free markets”- whether a verbatim quote or journalistic liberty – left some lingering doubt that we would be treated to a truly encompassing view into the perspectives of Tea Partiers.
Theres some detachment in this world where those who live in relative financial comfort tend to marginalize issues that contrast their perspectives or affect their subsistence.

Effective free markets as a springboard, is as euphemistic as “The New Normal” is a dismissal of a much deeper financial crevasse. You only have to visit the adjacent articles by John Wasik or Robert Cyran to understand the disparity that exists.
Effective capital allocation, one of the hallmarks of the free market principle, and as an example, tends to take on some intangible meaning of it’s own when lavished upon executive coffers leaving workers scraping to justify every labor unit/hour and submitting receipts for every penny of expense.

Half of this country are blind to the effects of this and simply live from tennis shoe to cheeseburger. The other half is sucking the very life from them.

View from the petri dish – and Thank You Reuters.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

[...] Only hard-working Americans need apply Chrystia Freeland [...]

I am a social worker and it is very difficult for me to have respect for the Tea Party. The notion of the “deserving” versus the “undeserving” poor is utter rubbish and implies a certain moral authority. Until you have worked with families who are struggling under crushing financial circumstances and can assess their situation, it it impossible to use those terms. How would the Tea Party view an individual with persistent mental illness? Deserving or not???? How about a single parent with two small children??? The programs currently in place offer TEMPORARY help only in the form of TANF and, as most people know, TANF has a five year lifetime cap. By the way, it has been my experience that most of the poor are, in fact, working so perhaps some of the TP leaders could offer advice on how a person might pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps. The role of government is complicated enough without the TP folks clouding the issues with morality.

Posted by Dede419 | Report as abusive

Not only the Tea Party so-called-supporters get soc secu, medicare, pensions, some of their family may be a unionized worker, and yet to keep up party appearances they have to defend the brazen conservative cause. Which means that they speak with a forked tongue, and there can’t be anything productive or progressive for the nation when citizens say one thing and do something else. They clamor they are progressives, are they?

Posted by kritik1 | Report as abusive

Social Security is a government program only in that you are required to be in it. If collecting Social Security labels all of us as recipients of a big government program, then what do you call people who save at a bank which taxpayers have to bail out with ever more and more borrowed money and a bloated Federal Reserve?

Posted by threeRivers | Report as abusive

Good article. This type of article is a direct assault on the values of our Liberal/Progressive/Socialist/Democrat/M arxist Elite. If they cannot define the ideology differences with those old arguments Class Warfare and Racism they can’t define it.

This study solves nothing. What it could do is allow a beginning open and fruitful discussion toward new policies for both sides of the political isle.

Amazing what facts do for any argument. I doubt the Obama regime will pay much attention to it. Sad.

Simply amazing.

“We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality” – Ayn Rand

Posted by Chieftain | Report as abusive

I thought Greenspan and his cronies tried the free market approach with little regulation already. And what we see today is the fruits of that labor. Has this editor forgotten the past 10 years?

Posted by opaque | Report as abusive

Come on commenters, talk about the research. Is “deservingness” (mediated through notions of race/ethnicity) a good way to understand the TP’s or not? My view is no. They rightly try to show the complexity of the relationship to “government” and entitlement, but its too simplistic to reduce the whole thing to another black/white type binary, and one so materialist at that. Like everyone else, they’re rushing to market with their tea party research, trying to capitalize, but depth of insight suffers. Reach deep, the truth is out there.

Posted by gimiento | Report as abusive

I’m a little late to this one – but I think that most of the TPers are actually jilted. Scenario: they’ve kept a tight pocketbook, no debt, etc., and watched others get ahead or have more by being spendfree and carrying debt. TPers kept wagging a finger saying ‘you’ll get yours’ but when the day of reckoning came in Sep08 EVERYONE got a big smackdown. And that makes them mad. The TPers thought they were immunized by being debt-free, but alas they lost jobs too, then their HC coverage, then everything. So they have real anger and they want to make people pay, and the media that they watch/listen to offers up Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. When Obama came on the scene he really galvanized the anger, an anger that was already very alive and well. So the racism aspect is more a fringe benefit for the TP organizers than a genuine cause.

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive