The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism

Image of The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism
Release Date: 
January 5, 2012
Publisher/Imprint: 
Oxford University Press, USA
Pages: 
264
Reviewed by: 

“The authors’ assessments about the future are thus overshadowed by unavoidable questions. Did they ever they ever really understand their subject or was it too much of an intellectual leap to comprehend a movement so utterly Ausland to self-assured Harvard elites? They came, they saw, they counted: But did they really listen?”

Timed for the 2012 presidential sweepstakes, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism promises “finely grained portraits of local Tea Party chapters with a big-picture analysis of the larger movement’s rise and likely fate.”

Fortunately, the book reads more easily than most academic writing, gratifying since Dr. Skocpol is a Harvard government professor and Dr. Williamson a doctoral candidate. Their chatty initial portraits of local Tea Party cells and personalities resonated immediately—and with good reason.

I fit the Tea Party demographic profile sketched by the authors: A 60-something conservative and a veteran. Full disclosure: In the 2010 election, I walked the back streets and country lanes of our San Antonio congressional district, handing out campaign flyers opposing the incumbent Pelosi-crat. We won; but to this day, I have no idea how many of my fellow campaigners were Tea Partiers, Republican activists, or just ordinary citizens like me worried about bailouts and the country’s skyrocketing debt.

Grassroots movements are often that way, so books like The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism can usefully fill in the blanks. In seeking those answers, the authors took their research seriously. They visited local Tea Party organizations, attended their rallies, read their websites, and analyzed every available survey. Their overall conclusion: “Grassroots activists, roving billionaire advocates and right-wing media purveyors . . . create the Tea party and give it the ongoing clout to . . . redirect the Republican Party and influence broader debates in American democracy.” Such is the new Iron Triangle linking conservative political activists in 2012.

With possibly a thousand local Tea Party chapters, grassroots beliefs can be elusive, but the main ones include:
• A reverence for, and a strict construction of, Constitutional precepts;
• A through skepticism of outside experts, especially bureaucratic and intellectual elites;
• Ambiguous attitudes toward Medicaid and Social Security, matched by a corresponding opposition to public spending on undeserving “moochers.” One example: A Tea Party bumper sticker reading, “Your fair share is NOT in my wallet!”
• Tea Partiers blame their ongoing nightmare of American social decline on, “freeloading social groups, liberal politicians, bossy professionals, big government and the mainstream media.”

The Tea Party movement caught fire in 2009, barely a year after Barack Obama’s election, when waves of populist reaction swept through town-hall meetings often convened to explain Democratic initiatives on the economy and health care. The authors trace the tensions between the upstarts and establishment Republicans as well as the rise of policy-advocacy groups like Freedom Works and Americans for Prosperity.

The common objective: To “reshape public discussions and attract widespread conservative support for ultra-free market ideas about slashing taxes and business regulation . . .” But the authors are equally concerned about the lurking presence of “politically active super-rich families” and recycled Republican influencers like Dick Armey. Such shadowy figures regularly provoke the authors’ all-purpose put-down: right wing. Equally suspicious: Conservative Christian evangelicals.

But it is only when discussing the media, the third leg of their new Iron Triangle, that the authors jettison any pretense of objectivity. The mere mention of Fox News (“the loudest voice in conservative media”) apparently provokes the Harvard version of Tourette’s Syndrome. So, too, the “right-wing blogosphere and a nation-wide network of right-wing talk radio programs,” all part of “the conservative echo chamber.”

And then the authors really jump off the deep end, “Today certain major institutions, such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today and National Public Radio—still follow 20th century norms of objectivity and balance in their coverage of politics and policymaking.”

Sorry, ladies, but no one outside Cambridge 02138 believes that brain-freezing absurdity and, based on ten years with NBC News, I can tell you that the mainstream media doesn’t either.

The chapter-long rant on Fox and the conservative media makes it hard to take the book’s conclusions seriously. That is a shame because the authors provide some valuable insights on what the Tea Party did—and didn’t—accomplish when the “following winds” of the 2010 elections gave the Republicans control of the House, 700 legislative seats and six governorships across the nation (right-wingers of course).

The authors’ assessments about the future are thus overshadowed by unavoidable questions. Did they ever they ever really understand their subject or was it too much of an intellectual leap to comprehend a movement so utterly Ausland to self-assured Harvard elites? They came, they saw, they counted: But did they really listen?

It makes you wonder about where we are headed as a society when real academic objectivity and skepticism are in such short supply—to say nothing of irony. Despite living in close proximity to that first American tea party, Professor Skocpol and Dr. Williamson never attempt to probe the movement’s deeper linkages to American historical memory, insights that Alexis de Tocqueville, and Samuel Adams would gladly have supplied. (Or if you prefer Texas examples, Sam Houston and Davy Crockett).