Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Party Networks Perspective on Tea Parties and Republicans

Want a little whiplash?  Start by reading Jonathan Rauch's fascinating NJ story about the decentralized, leaderless structure of the Tea Party Patriots.  And then head over to the NYT expose on the big-shot GOP consultant making a killing off of the Tea Party Express.  Is the Tea Party a grassroots, egalitarian social movement, or a GOP astroturf front group?  Both?  Neither? 

You can imagine how difficult it is for anyone to talk about the effects of Tea Partyism, given how difficult it is to define what the Tea Party is in the first place.  Given that, I've seen two worthwhile things recently.  One is Nate Silver's Big Think piece, which as you can expect from him is particularly good in its race-by-race analysis (his "Dimension 1").  The other I've referred to before, but I'll quote it this time; it's from Ed Kilgore's wrap-up of the GOP primary season:
The role of the Tea Party movement in this rightward shift was significant, but it was not ubiquitous. And if, like me, you think the Tea Partiers are simply a mobilized bloc of conservative Republican voters, focusing on their role as if it were some sort of independent force is a chimera. What we have actually witnessed this year is the final victory in a Fifty Year War waged by the conservative movement for control of the Republican Party. 
I think Kilgore is largely correct in this, and I think party network scholars should have something to say about it.  The core thesis of the party networks approach is that American political parties (I call them "expanded parties") are best understood as composed of both formal party organizations and informal party networks, which include activists, campaign and governing professionals, party-aligned interest groups, the partisan mass media, and politicians.  From this perspective, it's easy to see that the Tea Parties are an organizational form within the expanded Republican Party, not an alternative to the party.  Moreover, it suggests that it's a mistake to think of one set of Republicans as an "establishment" and another -- which after all features the most recent Republican Vice Presidential nominee, along with the former Majority Leader of the House, plenty of sitting Members of Congress, and a host of long-time Republican activists and operatives -- as outsiders.  That may well be the case in some internal confrontations, but in others the lines may be between local groups and national Republicans, or between moderates and conservatives, or just between two competing candidates.

What else can we say, if we see Tea Parties this way?  One is (as Kilgore urges) to be very careful about attributing causation to Tea Parties.  Imagine, for example, that there were no Tea Parties at all.  Does that require imagining a world in which Congressional Republicans go along with whatever Barack Obama wants, a world in which Glenn Beck organizes no rallies, or a world in which rank and file Republicans have no interest in midterm elections?  We have a good test case for that: 1994.  And that's even before Fox News could play a coordinating role in GOP politics.  Indeed, I think it's safe to say that with any mainstream Democrat in the White House and with Democratic majorities in Congress, Republican reaction (regardless of how it was organized) would have been swift, strong, and intense.  Beyond that, another factor, that Sarah Palin is herself an independent force in GOP politics -- to the extent that her endorsements by themselves may have the capacity for significantly helping a favored candidate -- is probably entirely separable from Tea Partyism.  Again, it's easy to imagine no Tea Parties at all but a Palin endorsement still serving as a powerful cue to conservative activists, especially in multicandidate, low information primary elections.

That does not mean, however, that the "how it was organized" that I glossed over just now is necessarily irrelevant.  Yes, one could expect vigorous opposition to the Democrats.  And it's hardly surprising that conservative opposition would also (as it did after 1960, 1976, and 1992) would also take the form of criticizing past GOP elected officials for not being sufficiently conservative; that's what conservatives do.  But our expanded parties can take many forms, and to some extent the form they do take may make a huge difference.  It could well be the case that the Tea Party Patriots are mobilizing some grass roots activity that wouldn't have happened otherwise; it could be the case that particular organization forms are providing a local alternative to national Republican Party elites.  Without the particular organizational form(s) Republican opposition to Obama has taken, it's certainly possible that Bob Bennett and Lisa Murkowski would be safely cruising to reelection, and that Mike Castle would be about to deliver a Republican seat in Delaware.  On the other hand, it could be the case that Tea Partyism -- that is, Tea Partyism specifically, and not general GOP distaste for Democrats in government (and specific unease about the terrible economy) was responsible for recruiting some strong candidates, who will go on to be important GOP pols for the next decade or more.

What I do think is that it's a mistake to think of this as a national battle between Republicans against Tea Partiers, or between an establishment and insurgents, or between conservatives and moderates (Delaware notwithstanding, there just aren't a lot of Republican moderates left, although of course it's possible that Tea Party candidates may be even more conservative than their opponents).  It's certainly a mistake to think that Tea Parties in general, or specific Tea Party organizations, are responsible for conservative unhappiness with Barack Obama and the Democrats.  One other word of caution: American political parties are not as decentralized and local as they once were, but they are still not (only) national hierarchical organizations; it's very possible that these events differ, possibly quite a bit, across different states.  Maybe in some places there really is an establishment vs. outsiders story, but other places may differ.  Indeed, I suspect that some of these battles are between locals and the national party -- but sometimes the national party that matters are national movement conservatives trying to capture a local moderate party, while sometimes its national pragmatic operatives against local purists.  And sometimes, both might be happening at the same time.  Of course, all of this means that it's difficult to generalize about "the effects of the Tea Parties."  That's fine; sometimes the best we can do is to wait for further data, or to just describe as best we can without trying to draw big causal connections.


  1. The tea parties represent an interesting counterpoint to the religious right/Moral Majority movement of the 1980's. Whereas the Moral Majority focussed on socially conservative issues rather than economic issues, the tea party movement is almost entirely concerned with issues of economics, fiscal policy and the proper role of government. You'd think that many of those in the media and on the left who objected to the social issues activism of the Moral Majority would welcome the different concentration of the tea party movement--but that turns out not to be the case.

  2. Rob, I think you miss Jonathan's point: there is no real, organized Tea Party Movement but rather a network of groups of activists that identify themselves with the Tea Party movement and will tend to emphasize the issues that they want to, but on the whole, these are the same Republican groups that have fought for influence over the direction of the party for decades. Jon Stewart's bit on the Tea Party's "effect" last night was particularly spot on.

  3. Anonymous, I'm with you until you say these are the same Republican groups that fought for influence over the direction of the party for decades. I don't read that as being Jonathan's point, and I don't agree with it. The Moral Majority's issues were not congruent with the tea partiers' issues. Similarly, though to a lesser extent, the McGovern Democrats' issues were not the same as the issues that drive those on the left today; there's a bigger difference between both those leftward pushes and the issues on the left in 1948. And note carefully that it's not just that the issues differ, it's the people and interest groups who are advancing those issues.

    Certainly there's some overlap, but to imagine a single rightward or leftward faction in the parties waging a decades-long struggle for influence is simplistic and misses the fact that different issues attract different adherents. Country club Republicans, strong defense Republicans, social issues Republicans, tea party Republicans, libertarian Republicans may all fit within the general category of those pulling the party to the right, but each is pulling it to a somewhat different place on the right and depending on which is in the ascendancy at any given time, attracting different independents.

  4. I don't see that the Tea Party comes mainly from inside the Republican party. I think most are independents or borderline/uninvolved Republican leaners. They are similar to the Perot voters, who were most concerned with fiscal issues. If this is right, that spells big trouble for the Democrats because it means a large number of Independents, plus some disaffected Republicans, and some conservative Democrats are all uniting with the Republicans.

  5. The real battle is between the rank and file of the conservative movement, including the culture warriors, the bigots, and the free market ideologues, and the Republican blue bloods who think they have a hereditary right to run the party. The Club for Growth has been doing the same thing as the Tea Party for years.

  6. I think if you combine Anon's comment and Rob's 2nd comment(7:11) you get about what I suspect is going on. It's not just the same old Taft/Dewey split, or even just the Club for Growth/non-Club split in different clothes. But those fights are in the mix, as are new versions of those fights...some of the players are the same, but surely there are new people -- which is no surprise; the parties are always bringing in new people. And the "Tea Party movement", to the extent it's really one movement, is all over the map...there are clearly some libertarian-leaning folks, some less libertarian inclined who want a GOP focused just on economics, but also some strong social conservatives driven by the same issues that drive the Values Voters crowd. It's not monolithic, and it's not primarily, and certainly not completely, an outsiders/establishment thing.

  7. When they started, the Tea Parties might have been concerned mostly with fiscal conservativism. However, it's hard to sustain that argument in September 2010. Joe Miller. Christie O'Donnell. Sharron Angle. Marco Rubio. This is not a list of people who are agnostic on social issues.

    Jon's larger point is that calling things "insider/outsider" or "establishment/tea party" or whatever is a choice of terminology that carries with it some baggage: namely, the assumption that American parties are organizations only. Rather, the perspective that Jon is pushing is that parties are really a forum through which factions can compete for their views of an ideal world. So, the Tea Parties (whether we want to call them patriots, fiscal conservatives, or clinically insane, it doesn't matter) represent an attempt to influence public policy mostly by influencing the types of candidates and policies put forth by one of the two major parties. Note that this doesn't preclude simultaneously attempting to influence public policy outside the 2-party system, but they learned their lessons from NY-23: it's a two-party system.

    All this said, I really disagree with any characterization of the folks in Tea Parties as being outside the existing Republican party orbit. I simply cannot accept that as being true. That statement, to my ears, is just preposterous. It just can't fly. Democrats aren't offering policies that are all that different from what they've been offering for 20 years now. Where were the Tea Parties in the 1990s, or even harassing candidates in 2000-2008? Similarly, Tea Parties simply didn't exist in any kind of number until the day after Obama won. Now, of course, Bush is attacked for not reigning in spending, but the objections were EXCEEDINGLY muted from those who ostensibly hold this perspective from 2000-2006, and really for 2007 and 2008 as well.


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