Only hard-working Americans need apply
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.