The Professors and the Tea Parties

Ten scholars try to explain the Tea Party movement.


Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party, edited by Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost, University of California Press, 312 pages, $29.95.

As soon as the Tea Party movement began, so did the war to define it. The groups' activists positioned themselves as grassroots populists, "normal, hardworking Americans fed up with government." Their critics searched for connections that would let them decry the movement as Astroturf. The pervasiveness of both partisan arguments, along with the movement's often confusing decentralized structure, have made it difficult to understand the phenomenon with clarity.

Now a collection of academic essays, Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party, attempts to provide such an "informed and profound understanding." Whether it succeeds is debatable.

The volume, edited by the Berkeley sociologist Lawrence Rosenthal and the Berkeley political scientist Christine Trost, opens with an argument by Charles Postel, an historian at San Francisco State. Postel, the author of The Populist Vision, asks whether Tea Party groups are authentically "populist." Setting the tone for the book, he argues that the Tea Parties cannot be legitimately understood within the late 19th century populist tradition, which he characterizes as "a democratic movement for economic justice," because they stand fundamentally opposed to many of the original populist reforms. Instead, he says, the movement has to be understood within a right-wing history that includes the likes of the John Birch Society and Barry Goldwater. Authentic populists would address the concerns of the middle class, he continues, while Tea Partiers are free-market fundamentalists in league with a corporate elite, struggling to dissolve what remains of a middle-class safety net. "In this time of crisis of political economy," he writes, "where is the populism in a movement that demands hard money and to revert to the gold standard?"

I think I can answer that question. As an anthropologist, I conducted fieldwork for two years in the Tea Party movement, among two grassroots groups in California and among professional conservative operatives in Washington, D.C. The push for a return to the gold standard was indeed present, often accompanied by demands to "End the Fed!" While activists argue that a return to the gold standard will provide economic security through curtailing the accumulation of debt (it would be impossible to over-borrow, or to create money/value out of "nothing"), I think the political demand has much deeper significance.

Briefly, at this point currency values are determined by floating rates of exchange generated through global currency markets. Consequently, values are in rapid flux, in a state of constant motion and redefinition. A local activist I came to know intimately once told me that she converted her entire 401K to gold and silver because "the only things that have value come from the earth." Their value, she believed, was permanent and external to markets. The idea reflected a yearning for materiality, for certainty, for "core principles"—for a form of value and, ultimately, selfhood that was inviolable and transcendent. If anything, her actions registered a nervousness around global market norms and the shifting ground of the middle class. Tea Party populism lies less in proposed remedies, and more in the critiques embedded within.

Postel's tendency to align the movement with corporate objectives is ever-present in the book. The editors' introduction gives credence to the conspiracy theory that the pivotal Rick Santelli rant that was a flash point for the emergence of the movement was staged. Separate research by the conservative watchdog Devin Burghart and the University of Missouri–Columbia sociologist Clarence Lo also argue that the Tea Parties are essentially a top-down phenomenon—in Lo's words, a movement "test marketed," designed, and initiated by an elite.

In a "first wave," Lo writes, the initial Tea Party mobilizations were manufactured and "directly" controlled by an imaginatively conceived nexus of establishment organizations and grassroots groups, including FreedomWorks, American Majority, dontgo, Smart Girl Politics, and #TCOT. But as the movement quickly scaled, he argues, a "second wave" was able to generate what he calls "marginal autonomy," resulting in a more decentralized movement composed of "open, local networks" that at times challenged traditional political structures. Despite this, Lo denies that the movement has any grassroots authenticity. The GOP, he says, "allows marginal autonomy in [its] ranks" as a way of continually revitalizing the party.

Lo and some of his colleagues are clearly eager to push back against the idea of a grassroots, populist Tea Party movement, highlighting the influence and participation of Republican elites. This is partially warranted: Elites are and have been involved in the movement, and the grassroots narrative does obscure the involvement of established groups like FreedomWorks. But in my fieldwork, I observed the exact opposite of the process described by Lo. In the early stages of the movement, activists had more autonomy in controlling their agendas and messages. For the most part, establishment Republicans were blindsided by the suddenness of the movement's emergence, its rapid expansion, and its activists' willingness to reject establishment institutions—including the GOP—as proxies for their political interests. The desire to build a movement and platform in which activists could project "OUR message," as one told me, was made forcefully in April 2009 when local organizers in a number of cities publically rejected requests by high-profile Republicans to speak at Tea Party events.

With time, however, establishment organizations became more effective at building influence and injecting themselves into movement networks. Yet despite those organizations' increasing power, the movement as a whole is not vertically organized, there is no central leadership, and the relationships between activists and the establishment remains unstable. Any accounting of establishment influence demands nuance, and must recognize how broad-based Tea Party political agendas are negotiated between activists and the establishment.

Leaving Lo's chapter, the reader is left to wonder about these "open, local networks" he briefly invokes. Throughout the other essays we see statements that the movement is "decentralized" or "networked" or "uncoordinated," but this novel form remains unexplained. Why did activists organize themselves in networks?

The answer is pretty simple, and it points us in a different direction for understanding the Tea Parties. Fearful of centralized, technocratic authority (socialism!), fearful of the demise and fundamental transformation of the United States, fearful of the eclipsing of their own sovereignty as "the people," activists are using digital media to build networks and organizational forms that stress their own autonomy and sovereignty. The protests, the email lists, the blogging and tweeting, the monthly meetings of groups featuring local self-styled experts—all provide opportunities for activists to express themselves and develop and assert their own knowledge and opinions. Through doing so, activists are struggling against a profound sense of estrangment to "figure out our rights as American people," as a local leader once told me. In this sense, the Tea Party project, steeped in constitutionalist politics, an emphasis on localism, and the idea of American exceptionalism, is one of recovery, a movement to recuperate the power of the individual against the state and the nation against globalist trends.

In this sense, the movement is not entirely instrumental in its politics. That is, its interests are not limited to a concrete set of political demands that can be ameliorated through legislation, though that is the premise on which one of the book's contributors, the James Madison University political scientist Martin Cohen, bases his argument about the movement's limited political efficacy. Much like Occupy, the Tea Parties can be thought of as a new social movement experimenting with new organizational and cultural forms. The movement's decentralized shape is itself is an answer to the problems activists are addressing.

Charges of racism have been the bane of the movement, and many activists have worked overtime to refute those claims, producing clear anti-racist moments. Consequently, there is no easy way to address the Tea Parties' relationship to race. In a thoughtful but flawed chapter, the University of Michigan political scientist Lisa Disch contends that it would be a mistake to perceive the movement as "simply racist." Tea Party politics has to be understood, Disch contends, within a history of liberal social welfare policy and the ways in which racialized concepts of citizenship have come to be forged. Grappling with what she sees as a central contradiction in the anti-government Tea Party message—the often very public defense of government programs such as Social Security and Medicare, as epitomized in the famous statement, "Keep your government hands off my Medicare!"—she notes that those New Deal–legacy policies implicitly grouped people through racial categories. While Disch could have been more careful to assert that Medicare is a product of Great Society legislation rather than the New Deal (and to distinguish between the cultural politics of the two), she makes a reasonable case that such entitlements came to be associated with "whiteness" in the way that welfare has been with "blackness." The result, she concludes, is what she calls a "white citizenship" movement, in which activists have mobilized in part to "defend interests and identifications that they have inherited from the New Deal."

There is a problem with this argument. To support her contention that there is dissonance in the movement when it comes to Social Security and Medicare, Disch relies on a broad-ranging 2010 New York Times/CBS poll. But that survey polled Tea Party supporters, not activists. There is a difference, and this is precisely the kind of issue where the views of a local activist might diverge from those of a generally supportive armchair Republican. This points to a larger problem with the research presented in this volume: Not one author reported holding a single conversation with a local Tea Party activist. For the most part, they relied instead on other people's polls, on journalistic accounts, or on Web-based observations.

Despite these limitations, there is merit in Disch's larger contention that activists are mobilizing to defend specific notions of belonging and citizenship. I noted throughout my fieldwork this struggle to restore a particular national vision (and to oppose a creeping globalization). While I witnessed many anti-racist moments—and many feminist, and even anti-homophobic, moments—there was indeed deep resistance to expanded concepts of citizenship and accompanying benefits. This was evident in birther theories, which ultimately worry over the citizenship of a man who has a Kenyan father. It was also evident in the support I witnessed in California for Arizona's infamous SB 1070, which circumvented federal immigration laws to create state-level enforcement, including a "show me your papers" provision. Tea Party support for the law was grounded in abstract support for "states' rights," but also in protecting "the integrity," as an activist mentioned, of "our laws, our nation, and our rights." As Disch generally notes, there was a worry that certain forms of citizenship were slipping. This has ramifications for understanding the anti-government ideologies of the movement. It becomes clear that many activists are not purely anti-government but working to restore a particular contract between themselves and the government—one that foregrounds their interests.

Joseph Lowndes, a political scientist at the University of Oregon, also interrogates the role of race in the movement, arguing that there are "complex changes afoot" in the right's racial politics. While he contends that the specter of "Obama's socialism" is highly racialized, "meant to evoke fears of a black president unleashing a criminal state on a vulnerable nation," Lowndes also notes that there is a significant lack of antagonistic politics directed at people of color on the whole. Rather, activists have aimed their fire at such targets as the state, public-sector unions, and (here Lowndes differs from Disch's analysis) universal entitlement programs. At the same time, they have backed candidates of color for political office—Allen West, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and so forth. Even in the racially charged mobilizations in support of Arizona SB 1070 and against what came to be called the "Ground Zero Mosque," Tea Party opinion was far from uniform. There is a larger transformation on the right, Lowndes contends, in which "certain forms of multiculturalism and even anti-racism" are taking root among conservatives, evidenced by President George W. Bush's commitment to racial equality within his administration. This, he concludes, signals a shift away from the infamous Southern Strategy, in which conservative candidates exploited racial resentment for political gains.

If only the chapters discussing social conservatives were as adventurous in their analyses. Peter Montgomery, a longtime watchdog of the Christian right, probes the influence and participation of evangelicals in the movement, while the Washington College political scientist Melissa Deckman, in a bid to understand Tea Party women, analyzes the traits and interests the that evangelicals and Tea Partiers may share. Both writers find a considerable overlap between the movements' cultural and political beliefs, and Montgomery argues that there is a large evangelical presence in Tea Party groups. While his insight that the libertarian-leaning movement has developed a more deeply religious moral underpinning is appreciated, I wish he had written more about the defining struggles and points of divergence between the two groups, many of which I have witnessed. The Tea Party organizations with which I conducted fieldwork in California actively and openly resisted taking on "social issues," with members repeatedly exclaiming, "That's not what we're about."

There is a profound conflict between the two movements in their conceptions of government. The Tea Parties emphasize a Goldwateresque "leave me alone" attitude, while social conservatives have long struggled to advance legislation favorable to their values. Montgomery notes that many on the Christian Right have embraced the Tea Parties' limited-government rhetoric. But does this mean there has been a fundamental shift in thinking, or is this just pragmatic politics? Meanwhile, Deckman notes that Tea Party women are more likely than evangelical women to be pro-choice. Those kinds of data capture conflicting ideas over the role of government in regulating our lives, yet Montgomery and Deckman and give us no sense of this struggle, or of what is unique about the younger movement. Instead we get a generalizing, monolithic view of the right that underappreciates the coalitions and conflicts at play.

The editors argue that Tea Partiers have built an exclusionary politics that rely on the construction of an Other, that this is the hallmark feature of the right, and that the left's processes of identity formation, by contrast, is "more inward looking." There are indeed exclusionary aspects to the Tea Party movement, but most of this volume seems intent on Othering that movement's members, striving as it does to argue that the activists are extremists outside the mainstream. Once again, we are left wanting for a view of the movement that steps beyond the usual partisan frames.