Friday, February 25, 2011

Tea Partiers and Conservatives

I think I agree mostly, but disagree in part with Jonathan Chait, Jamelle Bouie, and Steve Benen when they say that Tea Partiers are really just rebranded conservative Republicans. And to go with that I mostly disagree and in part agree with Kevin Drum, who believes that Republicans are a lot more crazy now than they were in the 1990s or the 1980s.

On that last point -- it's important to remember that (if you're going to generalize from the worst of it) Republicans in the 1990s considered Bill Clinton to be a serial murderer who had traveled to Moscow for vague but somehow very relevant nefarious purposes when he was young. And while Drum notes that Rush Limbaugh has apparently taken to making cheap personal attacks on the First Lady, I can't imagine it's anywhere near the mudslinging he habitually engaged in against Hillary Clinton in the 1990s.

So why don't I entirely agree with the former group (and disagree with Drum)? Because institutions matter. Yes, Tea Partiers are almost always going to be the same group that opposed Clinton in the 1990s. But organizationally, they may well be different in important ways this time around. In particular, their eagerness to contest primary elections really does seem to matter. Granted, a few high-profile successes doesn't really mean that Members of Congress are in grave danger if they cast one bad vote. Politicians, however, are notoriously risk-averse when it comes to elections, and frequently overstate such dangers.

It may well make a big difference that Tea Partiers are an organized (or perhaps several organized) factions within the Republican coalition, and not just a bunch of rank and file ready to support the GOP. Now, how it will affect things is yet to be seen. But that's one of the things worth keeping an eye on over the course of the 112th Congress and the 2012 election cycle.


  1. I'm more with Drum on this. I can't remember any Republican in the 90s suggesting not to take part in the 2000 census. Glenn Beck isn't really disavowed by the Republican elites (or, at least, wasn't until a few weeks ago). GOP candidates for the Senate didn't advocate 2nd amendment remedies, or dropping the 14th amendment. Heck, they even knew what the 14th amendment was.

  2. I think that the tea baggers have actually liberated a lot of republicans to act as nutty as they've always wanted to act.

  3. Jonathan, how (if at all) are the Tea Party organizations different from the organizations of the religious right (Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, AFA) that have been a key faction in the Republican Party over the past few decades?

  4. My basic view is this: the difference between the '90s and today is a difference of degree rather than kind. However, it's a significant difference of degree.

    In other words, in the '90s there were influential Republicans like Limbaugh saying stuff just as crazy as the stuff said today. But now there are more of those people, there's more crazy stuff being said, and--most importantly--there's far less of a barrier between the extremists and the mainstream.

    A lot of it, I think, has to do with the rise of Fox News. This was going on even before the Tea Party, which I view as a symptom rather than a cause. For example, back in 2007 Fox was already running the rumors about Obama being schooled in a radical madrassa.

    There simply was no entity like Fox in the '90s. Yes, the network itself started in '96, but it took some time to become as influential--and crazy--as it is today. One of the early signs of its influence was when GWB's first cousin John Ellis called the 2000 election for Bush, prompting other networks to follow suit.

    I view the TP as basically a Fox News phenomenon. Of course it includes sincere activists and a grassroots base, but it required media to make it into something big, and that was Fox's role. So, in essence, I agree with Chait that it's largely a marketing tool of the old GOP.

  5. Massappeal,

    Well, first of all, the Tea Partiers aren't organized specifically to fight for Christian conservative issues. Even if the preferences of the rank-and-file are exactly the same, the fact that (AFAIK) none of the TP organizations have those issues at their core really can mean that those issues are de-emphasized.

    Second, for those TP groups that are top-down, the impression I get is that the funding and organizational sources really are less concerned with those issues. Which, again, can lead to de-emphasis on some issues, and more of an emphasis on others.

    That sort of thing.

  6. Jon,
    I think massappeal was asking how they're different organizationally.

    My sense of that aspect of it is that the two phenomena are very different. The Christian Right is, at its root, based in religious institions. While there is a significant political aspect to them, and this political aspect has subsequently had an influence on the religious institutions (with liberal and conservative churches in a number of faiths), at their roots, these are still religious institutions. The political activities they engage in rise from that. There are interest groups that rely on their actions, and some of them are intimately tied with some religious institutions.

    The Tea Parties are very different. Some are borne out of the Koch/AFP/Fox mold. They are grass-roots only in the sense that they are driven by individuals, but those individuals are programmed. However, others are drawn into the TP for truly individual reasons. Sure, Fox or some funded group might have connected them to a meeting, website, rally, or what-have-you. But, these people would properly be considered grass-roots.

    A HUGE difference between them is recruitment. Nobody is a member of the TP because their parents were, or because everyone in their town is.

  7. This is an in-progress thought turned into a blog comment, for what it's worth, but I'm working with the 2010 ANES recontact data to look at tea party support, among other things. I'm using something like the model that Nate Silver published on Saturday looking at the '08 vote -- demographics, household characteristics, religion, geography. Church attendance and being an Evangelical Christian are the strongest predictors of tea party support. Granted, this result is about individuals and not the institutions involved. Still, I think getting into who these people are is an important step -- the "tea party" label may have come about in 2009, but the tea party spirit infected movement conservativism in 2008 and before, as well.

  8. Hey glad I came across this post Jon, but I do have to respectively disagree to an extent. Here's why.


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