Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

Scenes from the Tea Party

Peter Rudegeair
Jul 11, 2011 22:00 UTC

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:

Only hard-working Americans need apply

Chrystia Freeland
Jul 8, 2011 14:16 UTC

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?”

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