Scenes from the Tea Party
Theda Skocpol, Vanessa Williamson, and John Coggin’s great paper “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism” formed the basis of Chrystia’s most recent column. As part of their research, Skocpol and her team embedded themselves in the Greater Boston Tea Party, the thirty-third largest Tea Party organization in the country, as measured by membership in the social-networking website MeetUp. The trio of scholars attended the group’s local rallies and conducted an extensive survey with 79 of the group’s members. The portrait of Tea Partiers that emerged from their fact-finding reinforced what many had observed anecdotally: Tea-Party members tend to be older, white males who are avid viewers of Fox News and have a history of political activism.
Like their fellow Tea Partiers across the United States, those in Massachusetts are older, white, and predominately male. 97 percent are white; 57 percent are males; and 83 percent are over forty-six years old (with more than half are older than age fifty-six). In addition, Bay State Tea Party activists envelop themselves with the same conservative news sources used by other Tea Party participants. When we asked Massachusetts Tea Party activists an open-ended question about their preferred news sources, 51 out of 69 respondents reported being Fox News watchers. As has also been found in national studies, few Massachusetts Tea Partiers are seeking out neutral or left-leaning sources of information. Only 11 of 69 respondents claim to read the Boston Globe, and only seven Massachusetts Tea Party activists report getting their news from ABC, NBC or CBS News. Like Tea Partiers nationally, many in Massachusetts are campaign veterans. In our Boston sample, 37 out of 79 respondents claimed to have previously volunteered on behalf of a candidate or political organization.
Fox News viewership in particular seemed to be an animating force for the Party and a prime topic of their conversation:
At Tea Party meetings, Fox News stories are a common currency; activists share stories reported on the network and quote the opinions of Fox News commentators. Fox News personality Glenn Beck is an especially frequent source of political opinion and historical perspective. According to Krislyn, “We’re history buffs… and [thanks to Beck] our knowledge has gone through the roof. A lot of people dismiss him as a kook, but I think he challenges you to question the status quo.” In addition to Fox News programs, most other sources of political information cited by Tea Party activists are conservative. After Fox News, conservative radio programs (such as Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham), and conservative websites (such as The Drudge Report and Red State) topped the list of Tea Party news sources. Several Boston-area Tea Party participants said that it was through watching Glenn Beck’s show that they found out about the Tea Party in the first place.
As Chrystia wrote, Tea Partiers divide the U.S. population into two groups: those who work and are worthy beneficiaries of government programs, and those who don’t who they believe should get nothing. More from Skocpol, Williamson and Coggin:
The distinction between “workers” and “people who don’t work” is fundamental to Tea Party ideology on the ground. First and foremost, Tea Party activists identify themselves as productive citizens. We began our Massachusetts interviews with an open-ended question about what brought interviewees to the Tea Party. A striking percentage of Tea Party activists responded by talking about themselves as workers. Emmy says, “I’m almost 66 years old and I’m still working.” Krislyn calls herself and her husband “blue-collar working-class people” who have “had to work very hard.” This self-definition is posed in opposition to nonworkers seen as profiting from government support for whom Tea Party adherents see themselves as footing the bill. As Charles put it, “people no longer have to work for what they earn.” Robert says, “we shouldn’t be paying for other people that don’t work.” A typical sign at the April 14th rally on the Boston Common read, “Redistribute My Work Ethic,” and similar signs have appeared at rallies across the country. Tea Party anger is stoked by perceived redistributions – and the threat of future redistributions – from the deserving to the undeserving. Government programs are not intrinsically objectionable in the minds of Tea Party activists, and certainly not when they go to help them. Rather, government spending is seen as corrupted by creating benefits for people who do not contribute, who take handouts at the expense of hard-working Americans.
What’s interesting to note here is that the Tea Partiers conception of working people is fluid and not necessarily tied to whether they are currently employed. A third of the Greater Boston Tea Party members that responded to their survey were students, unemployed people, or retirees. There were two categories of people, though, that were unquestionably included in the nonworking group: young people and unauthorized immigrants.
An April 2009 blog on the Greater Boston Tea Party website entitled “Oh SNAP! Foodstamps for College Kids?” begins “Call me crazy, but when I needed money for college, I got a job.” After telling the story of her nephew, Nancy concludes, “I think that a lot of [young] people… they just feel like they are entitled.” [...]
When we polled Massachusetts Tea Partiers about the issues they thought were most important for the Tea Party to address, 62 out of 79, or 78% of respondents, thought that “Immigration and Border Security” was “very important.” In fact, immigration and border security came in a close second to the Boston Tea Partiers’ top-ranked concern about “Deficits and Spending” (rated very important by 69 of the 79 respondents). Moreover, discussions of immigration seemed to provoke an especially emotional response. One Boston member spoke of wanting to “stand on the border with a gun,” while another complained about the “free-for-all south of the border.”
A fuller version of the researchers’ work will appear this December when Oxford University Press publishes their book, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.