The Tea Party And The Remaking Of Republican Conservatism

Theda Skocpol - Vanessa Williamson

Part 7

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As we glimpsed in Chapter 4, before the Republicans elected to the 112th Congress could even officially convene, many were "oriented" by wealthy organizations claiming the Tea Party mantle. Right after the November election, d.i.c.k Armey, head of FreedomWorks and former GOP Majority Leader from the 1990s, convened a Tea Party retreat in Baltimore to instruct incoming GOP House members on how to stay true to their small-government principles and avoid being co-opted by current GOP House leaders steeped in the ways of Washington DC.50 One might expect the "ways of Washington DC" to refer to such staples as cozying up to business lobbyists and holding constant fundraisers to solicit checks for the next election. But, no, the threats stressed by elite ideologues speaking for the Tea Party were the perils of doing business as usual through compromises with Democrats. Leaders from FreedomWorks feared that Speaker John Boehner might ask freshman Republicans and Tea Party veterans to partic.i.p.ate in such deals, and they wanted to head off the temptation. "Don't be dazzled by plum committee a.s.signments and other enticements from Republican leaders," or tempted by special spending targeted on local districts-not if such goodies stand in the way of the right-wing priorities of tax cuts and huge reductions in spending.51 In effect, FreedomWorks head d.i.c.k Armey appointed himself the shadow Speaker of the House for 2011; he told rank-and-file GOP legislators to refuse exactly the sort of cooperation with Republican Congressional leaders that Armey himself had routinely orchestrated back in the 1990s, when he served as GOP House Majority leader under Speaker Newt Gingrich and put together complex deals involving perks and targeted spending.

Similarly, the Koch-supported advocacy organization Americans for Prosperity (AFP) jumped into the game of pressuring and instructing Republican officeholders. Soon after the FreedomWorks retreat in November 2010, AFP a.s.sembled a rally on Capitol Hill to tell legislators "We're watching!" as the crowd chanted, with AFP leaders vowing to work to unelect GOPers next time should they fail to toe the ideological line.52 Again in January, as the 112th Congress convened, Americans for Prosperity representatives, including one of the famed billionaire Koch brothers, David, dropped into the Capitol to greet and lobby GOP leaders and incoming representatives, bending their ears on such ultra-free-market priorities as gutting the Environmental Protection Agency and promoting the privatization of Social Security and Medicare.53 Koch-supported Republicans were appointed to the key House Energy and Commerce committee dealing with environmental and energy legislation, in which Koch Industries has a huge stake.54 Many other committees were also now led by Republicans with close ties to the industries touched by legislation those committees would adjudicate. Prominent Tea Party Republicans were reported to have hired longtime lobbyists to help run their offices.55

The Radical Ryan Plan.

The all-important House Budget Committee for the 112th Congress is chaired by Congressman Paul Ryan, a longtime favorite of Americans for Prosperity and strongly backed by its Wisconsin arm. Right at the start of the 112th Congress, House Republicans voted to give Ryan authority to draw up a budget with targets to meet for draconian spending cuts. By early April, Congressman Ryan released a radical budget plan, drawing ideas and partisan fiscal estimates from the Heritage Foundation and other right-wing sources.56 Dubbed by a liberal critic a plan to "repeal the 20th century," Ryan's budget outline called for extending all previous tax cuts tilted toward the very wealthy, and it proposed to add yet more tax cuts for business and plutocrats.57 To pay for all of this and maintain some faintly plausible claim that, after twenty years, the federal budget would move toward balance, Ryan proposed ma.s.sive cuts in everything the federal government does for the health and safety of the U.S. population, including huge cuts in education funding and college grants and loans, as well as in Food Stamps and Medicaid. In addition, Ryan proposed to get rid of the Affordable Care Act of 2010 and eliminate Medicare as it has been known since 1965, starting with Americans who turn 65 years old in 2021. Until then, retired Americans would enjoy, as they do now, health care largely covered by public funds, even if they become very sick or disabled in old age. After that, older Americans would have to absorb thousands of dollars per year in higher costs because the Ryan plan would merely give them vouchers of dwindling value to try to buy insurance on the private market. Private insurance companies, needless to say, are not anxious to sell reasonably priced health plans to older people.

Despite the sudden, sweeping changes embodied in the Ryan budget plan, the rightward-leaning GOP Representatives in the 112th House voted for it almost unanimously only one week after it was proposed. House Republicans held no hearings and spent virtually no time in deliberation before voting to dismantle decades of popular and effective U.S. social spending on health care for senior citizens-and on many other social needs for children, the disabled, and young adults. It is doubtful that Republicans in the 112th House fully understood the ramifications; they simply did what House GOP leaders told them to do. Those GOP leaders, in turn, took their policy cues from extreme ideologues in the think tanks and billionaire-backed advocacy organizations that surround today's Republican Party-groups whose real interest lies in maintaining and increasing tax cuts for the wealthy. Quite aptly, the Ryan budget, featuring the abolition of Medicare, has been labeled a "radical" instance of "right-wing social engineering." These d.a.m.ning phrases came not from liberal sources, but from the lips of the very conservative Republican Newt Gingrich, who mounted a campaign for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.58 Gingrich is a 1990s-vintage GOP conservative who led the rightward charge starting in the Reagan era. That he thinks today's GOP policymakers are going too far toward the ideological right is very telling.

At its debut, the Ryan plan to eliminate traditional Medicare was described in the media as a "Tea Party proposal." But it would be more accurate to call it a "Koch proposal," an ideological scheme to realize long-standing ultra-right hopes to privatize and radically shrink a major national social program. There is no evidence that ordinary American citizens who sympathize with the Tea Party were clamoring for the elimination of Medicare in early 2011. We heard no such thing from our interviewees, and a respected national survey completed right after the Ryan plan appeared revealed that 70% of Tea Party supporters, along with even higher percentages of other Americans, oppose cuts in Medicare spending.59 The only thing about the Ryan Medicare scheme that might be considered a sop to rank-and-file Tea Partiers is his specification that the current Medicare guarantee would stay in place for people now 55 or older. No doubt Congressman Ryan and his advocacy allies understand the age groups from which most gra.s.sroots Tea Partiers come-and they have tried to target their radical restructuring to hit people just under the age of most current Tea Party partic.i.p.ants.

Overall, the Ryan budget includes many specifics unpopular with Americans of all ages and partisan persuasions. Additional tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires run directly counter to the preferences expressed repeatedly by substantial majorities of Americans, who want shared sacrifice and higher taxes on the wealthy instead.60 The fact is that grand calls for "eliminating the deficit" and "cutting taxes" sound good in the abstract, but budget realities make carrying through a plan like Ryan's blueprint a formula for gutting just about every specific part of the U.S. government that middle-cla.s.s and low-income Americans care about.

With the launch of Ryan's budget in the spring of 2011, the abstract ideas promoted by ideological elites who have latched on to the Tea Party label began to run into concrete popular views. By voting for such ideas, the new GOP House walked itself far out on an ideological limb, and the possibility opened that many of its members would be on the part of the limb that gets sawed off in 2012. Respected electoral a.n.a.lyst Charlie Cook was one of many who started to suggest that "it's not inconceivable that Republicans might start seeing things go against them in the court of public opinion."61 Republican leaders and spokespersons know this, so from the late spring and summer of 2011 onward, they waged highly abstract media wars about "the federal debt limit" and the overall size of budgets for 2012 and beyond. Rather than focus on exactly what might be cut from government's menu, GOP leaders spoke about overall targets for vague cuts, and about gimmicks such as a balanced budget amendment to the Const.i.tution or automatic ceilings that would supposedly go into effect without any representative or senator having to explain a cut to any particular program. Amidst ongoing theatrics, actual budget-writing proceeded quietly in ways that allowed the GOP House to try to satisfy industry lobbyists and shift as many cuts as possible toward measures helping lower-income people. All the while, Republican Congressional leaders staged recurrent, dramatic clashes with the White House and Senate Democrats, making bold declarations about "America going bankrupt."

Theatrical threats and last-minute brinksmanship have become the order of the day and will likely remain so until voters go to the polls in November 2012. "Hysterical stunt governing" is how journalist Juan Williams aptly summed up the GOP approach in the Tea Party era. He attributed the approach to the Republican leadership's need to propitiate Tea Partybacked freshman legislators and other Tea Party sympathizers inside and outside of DC, who veto compromises and "want to see" Speaker Boehner and other Republican Congressional leaders "attacking the President and calling out the Democrats in Congress as big spenders."62Using dramatic threats accompanied by a lot of public chest-thumping, the Republicans of the 112th Congress will see how often they can get President Obama and Congressional Democrats to cave in-see if they can push Democrats into making big cuts in programs vital to Democratic Party const.i.tuencies, such as Medicaid and Pell Grants. Republican leaders will also use the threat of derailing national economic recovery by refusing to pay U.S. obligations to try to get President Obama and Democratic leaders to sign on to right-wing ideological plans to eviscerate Social Security and Medicare-because if Democrats sign, that will enable GOP leaders to claim that such unpopular steps were taken in a "bipartisan" way.


Even as elite Tea Party organizations teamed up with Republican Congressional leaders to push extreme policy agendas, gra.s.sroots Tea Partiers also took steps to reap the fruits of right-wing GOP victories in 2010. Big rallies lost steam, but local Tea Party partic.i.p.ants threw themselves into serving as watchdogs over legislators and, in many cases, exerting new muscle inside the Republican Party itself.

Starting in the spring of 2011, some observers opined that the Tea Party was losing popular traction, pointing to spa.r.s.e turnout at DC rallies such as the one called on March 31 to pressure Congress during the first big budget battle.63 True enough, the focus inside the Beltway-and in the national media that hangs on events in the nation's Capitol-did shift after the 112th Congress took over. Media coverage of "the Tea Party" became obsessed with self-appointed Tea Party spokespersons like d.i.c.k Armey and the coordinators of Tea Party Patriots, the Tea Party Express, and even, at times, leaders from truly obscure groups. An event at the National Press Club in May 2011, for example, featured William Temple of the Tea Party Founding Fathers, dressed in colonial attire. Likewise, some of the media gave regular airtime to self-declared Tea Party legislators in Congress. After 2010, rallies in the Capitol, when they occurred at all, became less gra.s.sroots affairs than spa.r.s.e backdrops to the spokespersons the media really wanted to cover; and quite often, the press just attended events featuring those spokespersons directly.

Watchdogs Barking at GOP Heels.

But the upward shift of media interest did not mean that gra.s.sroots Tea Partiers stopped doing politically consequential things. Instead, as we saw clearly in the visits we made in various regions, local Tea Partiers are digging in locally for the long haul. As pa.s.sels of new GOP legislators took office in local and state governments as well as in Washington DC, local Tea Party activists turned toward watchdog activities. National advocacy groups like FreedomWorks offered local Tea Partiers new tools, by setting up websites where they could track legislators in real time and fire off complaints about things they do not like.64 The umbrella group Tea Party Patriots also took it upon itself to distribute freshman legislators' personal email addresses and cellphone numbers so that people could contact representatives to "show them that you won't tolerate politics as usual and show them the power of the Tea Party."65 During our field work, we saw local groups embracing watchdog functions with enthusiasm. In Arizona, Tea Partiers were concerned that they could not adequately track all the legislation moving in Washington DC, and they were looking for some reliable a.s.sistance. In Tempe, as we have already noted, Tea Partiers took careful notes on a draft "scorecard" from Americans for Prosperity and readied themselves to contact their local representatives. In Surprise, Arizonan Tea Partiers were reporting the results of visiting various national "Tea Party" websites, looking for those worth joining or visiting regularly. In each case, the emphasis was on ensuring that relatively conservative Republican legislators were in lockstep with Tea Party principles. Democrats, and even some moderate Republicans, were written off as "lost causes" to be ousted, if possible, in the next election.

Similarly, when New Hampshire Tea Party leader Jerry DeLemus visited Berwick, Maine, in April 2011, he explained how New Hampshire activists were keeping up pressure on the legions of GOPers they helped elect (including more than 100 overtly Tea Partyaffiliated representatives in the 400-person New Hampshire House). A former Marine, DeLemus punctuated his speech with insistence that he and his fellow Tea Partiers won't "retreat" or "back down."66 With vivid martial imagery, he described ongoing efforts to get Republicans to toe the line and gave vivid examples of face-to-face confrontations with representatives tempted to stray from Tea Party orthodoxy. They "represent you," he told his audience, explaining that elected GOP officials must do what they promised in advance to do and not adjust their views once in office. DeLemus urged his Maine listeners to press Republicans in the Maine legislature, too, as firmly as he and his Tea Party compatriots had done in New Hampshire. We Tea Partiers, DeLemus maintained, need to be as "resolute" and "aggressive" as liberals who are "trying to destroy this country." The aim, he summed up, should be to make Republican officeholders more "afraid" of the Tea Party than they are of Democrats.

One of the two women who co-chair the York County Const.i.tutionalists echoed DeLemus's tough stance. During the discussion period, she spoke scornfully of eight GOP Maine state senators who had publicly criticized Governor Paul LePage for taking down the labor murals and for the governor's rudeness to political opponents. That such public criticism of LePage could come from other Republican officeholders incensed the York Tea Party leader. We need to "call them on it," she said with evident anger. The incident proved to her that Maine Tea Partiers need to "take over the GOP" and "discipline" elected officials, just as leftist "radicals in the Sixties" once did.67 In the Jefferson Area Tea Party of Charlottesville, Virginia, the approach was a bit less pugnacious. A watchdog subcommittee was formed in the spring of 2011 with an intricate division of labor. Members doled out a.s.signments, with some tasked to track happenings in local government in both Charlottesville and Albemarle County, while others planned to track legislation in the Virginia a.s.sembly and monitor the positions taken by representatives from their area, and still others would keep an eye on what Virginia senators and newly elected fifth district GOP House member Robert Hurt are doing in Washington DC. Anytime a tracker sees something worrisome, he or she is to alert the entire Tea Party group. Meanwhile, the group was discussing big issues, like the debt limit. With little angst, they agreed it should not be raised-and planned to pressure their Congressional representatives accordingly. In the summer of 2011, national surveys showed that Tea Party sympathizers were especially likely to oppose raising the federal debt limit, despite the financial crisis that might follow.68 As we've seen, Tea Partiers believe that the United States already faces economic Armageddon, so a further step in that direction does not provoke much concern.

Remaking the Republican Party.

Not only are Tea Partiers warily watching GOP representatives considered theirs to direct. In many places, Tea Partiers have taken over chunks of the Republican Party apparatus, the local and state committees that determine nominating procedures and deploy resources in each election cycle. By grabbing GOP beachheads in late 2010 and 2011, if they had not already done so earlier, Tea Partiers could more effectively make good on the "or else" part of their message to Republican officeholders-"or else" we will challenge you in the next primary.

We heard some disagreement about how much effort local Tea Parties should put into directly taking over GOP committees, especially if that were to be a prelude to endorsing Republican candidates for election. Some local activists, such as those in Charlottesville, felt it would be better to stick to watchdog roles. But others espoused the position taken, for example, by Jerry DeLemus in New Hampshire, who teamed up with other Tea Partiers in New Hampshire to stage what he himself called a kind of "coup" in the election for GOP state chair that took place right after November 2010. New Hampshire is a state with many moderate as well as conservative Republicans. An establishment GOPer of the traditional middle-of-the-road New Hampshire variety was expected to win, a protege of former Republican Governor John Sununu. But New Hampshire Tea Party activists were greatly fired up after the November 2010 elections in which they helped propel Republicans to victory in a Senate race and two House races, as well as in many state-level contests. Tea Partiers figured out the complex GOP party voting rules, packed the relevant meetings with "boots on the ground," and elected their guy, Jack Kimball, instead of Sununu's candidate. Moderate New Hampshire Republicans were shocked, just as they were by many radical-right measures pushed through the New Hampshire legislature with the support of Tea Party Republicans starting in January 2011.69 "Many moderates now say they are resigned to having little sway in shaping the state's agenda.... 'We know we don't have much of a chance of convincing anybody of anything', said Representative Priscilla Lockwood, a moderate Republican."70 Moderate New Hampshire Republicans fear that having Tea Partiers running the GOP apparatus could make it more difficult for 2012 GOP presidential contenders to appeal simultaneously to Republican and independent voters in a state where presidential primaries are open to all voters, not just to registered Republicans. By contrast, the state's Tea Partiers are delighted to exercise leverage in the GOP primary. Every Republican presidential hopeful who through speaks to a Tea Party rally and schmoozes with local group leaders; some GOP presidential contenders, like Tim Pawlenty, have even sent staffers to local meetings.71 Tea Party leaders we spoke to enjoyed the attention, and hope to be arbiters in the 2012 primary.

Tea Partiers also believe that their sway inside the New Hampshire GOP apparatus will shift the state-level party in directions they favor. "Jack's election is frosting on the cake," an activist told the Boston Globe, explaining that the election of Kimball as a Tea Party chair of the state GOP "gives people hope that the Republican platform will be reinforced and that people will start acting like Republicans."72 In Tea Party eyes, all too many GOP moderates in New Hampshire have not acted like genuine Republicans. Not surprisingly, a.n.a.logous Tea Party sentiments and organizational tactics have contributed to takeovers of local GOP committees in different parts of Virginia, as well as to makeovers at the statewide level in Arizona and the state of Washington. "The 'outsiders' of 2010 are now moving to the inside," observed ABC News reporter Amy Walter in her January 2011 overview of Tea Party efforts to reorient Republican Party organizations in various states.73 Often, local Tea Party activists discover GOP committees to be virtually moribund, run by a few "good old boys" who are easy to displace. We heard stories from widely scattered places about ensconced party officials who were startled when, one night, a crowd of well-organized Tea Partiers turned up to vote them out, leaving them to slink away in bemus.e.m.e.nt. At other times, moderate Republicans are somewhat forewarned and push back at least a bit, as in the New Hampshire compet.i.tion for the GOP state chairmanship. Either way, the Tea Party usually can prevail, at least in states where there are many local groups with people who can be mobilized-just as a couple of decades ago, locally organized Christian conservatives took over GOP committees, the better to nominate friendly candidates and block wishy-washy moderates the next time around.

When Tea Partiers do prevail, the look of GOP committees changes, as several of our interviewees vividly described to us. The made-over GOP bodies become less b.u.t.toned down, and no longer operate like routine, sleepy gatherings of the local Chamber of Commerce. Suddenly, there is energy in the room, with people who dress and act in not-so-professional ways. The Tea Party Republican committees adopt a more fervent, populist tone. With Tea Partiers in charge, GOP committees become much more purposive and demanding.

From our perspective as political scientists, local Tea Party takeovers of GOP committees are likely to matter-along with local Tea Party efforts to exert watchdog pressures on elected representatives. GOPers who want to run for election or reelection to state legislatures and Congress will think twice-or three times-before ignoring the stated policy preferences of even relatively small Tea Party minorities in their districts, if they think those folks are closely following what they do and will turn out in primary contests or weigh in on crucial procedural or endors.e.m.e.nt decisions taken by GOP committees. As Jerry DeLemus stressed when explaining New Hampshire Tea Party achievements to his Maine neighbors, it helps to get a "reputation for effectiveness." Ongoing organization matters; turning out for meetings matters; repeatedly contacting legislators matters. And so does taking direct control of GOP organs.

From one angle of vision, the entrenched localism of gra.s.sroots Tea Partiers reduces their clout; it is easy for national political reporters to make that surmise. But from another perspective, steady local activity allows Tea Partiers to put sustained pressure on GOP officeholders from below. Tea Party Express chair Amy Kremer may therefore have been correct when she declared to a National Journal reporter in May 2011, that it "absolutely is not true" that the Tea Party is losing clout. "You're not seeing the great big rallies that you did before, because people are engaged on a local level doing things."74 The bottom line for the Tea Party's impact on Congress-and on state legislatures-lies in its capacity to coordinate national pressures from wealthy funders and ideological advocates with contacts from gra.s.sroots Tea Partiers who have a reputation for clout in local districts. When coordinated pressure can be mounted-as it has been in budget battles-the Tea Party delivers a loud and clear absolutist message to legislators, a message that comes both from advocates in DC and from local districts. Tea Partiers tell the GOP legislators they helped to elect that they are watching them and will withdraw money and votes next time if the legislators do not vote as Tea Partiers want. The ongoing credibility of such threats remains to be seen. But many GOP legislators worry when they hear statements like one from Darla Dawald, national director of the Patriot Action Network, who told a reporter, "we will remove as many inc.u.mbents as we can that do not do the job they were hired to do."75 Dawald's group is part of a dense network of national and regional conservative organizations linked to the Tea Party brand. Her words alone might not matter-but words like hers get through to GOP representatives when they are echoed by local groups active in their districts.


By now it should be obvious that Tea Partiers have a self-centered understanding of democracy. Tea Partiers consider themselves to be the true, patriotic Americans, and they believe that elected Republican representatives are "hired" to do pretty much exactly what Tea Partiers themselves say should be done. Government by and for the Tea Party, could be the motto. Little thought is given either by local activists or by national advocacy groups to discussing vital national issues with people outside the Tea Party. When we spoke with gra.s.sroots activists and observed discussions in meetings, we never heard anyone acknowledge the need for two-way dialogue with other Americans who think differently from Tea Partiers. The talk was all about getting GOP representatives to do as they had "promised" Tea Party voters, with no acknowledgement that other kinds of voters also supported successful GOP candidates, let alone any acceptance that Democratic representatives, elected by other const.i.tuencies, also have legitimate roles to play in Congress and state legislatures.

When nonTea Partiers came up, they were portrayed as people who need to be "educated" about Tea Party points of view-unless the others were Democrats, in which case they were scornfully dismissed. At the April 2011 Tea Party meeting in North Berwick, Maine, for example, both the speaker and members of the audience described the Democratic Party as an unholy alliance of dependents on "welfare," public sector employees leeching from taxpayers, and immigrants trying to vote illegally. Such conceptions of Democrats are widespread among Tea Partiers. The bottom line is that talking with Democrats would be a waste of time, and compromises or bargains with them verge on the illegitimate.

The Republicans who gained seats in the Senate and took control of the House of Representatives in 2011 include many persons of this mindset, legislators who believe they are in office to do what the Tea Party demands with little discussion and no d.i.c.kering. GOP Representatives and Senators may hold this view of their duty by conviction, as is surely true of many freshmen who came directly out of Tea Party circles and have little previous government experience. Or GOP Representatives and Senators may feign this outlook out of some sense that a bl.u.s.tering, demanding style will propitiate Tea Party const.i.tuents. Either way, the Tea Party understanding of GOP representation-that legislators should function as conveyor belts for pre-cooked right-wing policy ideas backed by emotional popular pressure-suffuses the workings of the 112th Congress, especially in the House of Representatives where all budget legislation originates.

In the past, budgets have been occasions for legislators to compromise, but Tea Party Republicans do not look at them in this light. As the United States heads into yet another high stakes presidential election, the Republican-led House of Representatives and many GOPers in the Senate are loaded for bear to pick one fight after another with the Senate Democratic majority and the Obama White House. In those fights, there are dozens of Tea Partyendorsed House members-and quite a few Tea Partyendorsed GOP Senators, too-who do not want to compromise at all with people whose ideological preferences they do not share.

As long as Tea Party gra.s.sroots activists and elite free-marketers remain determined to block compromises, even Republican officeholders and candidates who want to be flexible will fear challengers from their right. Veterans who in the past have reached across the aisle to forge effective or popular legislation-for example, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, or Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, or Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine-hesitate to do so now, lest roving Tea Party billionaire groups, joining ranks with the Club for Growth and social conservative advocates, decide to go all out against them. All three onetime moderates know that Tea Party candidates might challenge them in 2012.76 Of course, the fact that Republicans in office worry about such challenges is a source of pride for Tea Party political action groups and roving billionaire Tea Partiers. If Tea Party funders can frighten and discipline more moderate GOP officeholders into suppressing any willingness to compromise, they will not actually have to throw them out of office. On critical questions about taxes, especially, feigned adherence to the hard-line right position is just as good as sincere adherence.

In the final a.n.a.lysis, compromise in Washington DC will be inevitable, at least to some degree-and a lot of what we see on television or read on the Internet or in newspapers amounts to GOP Congressional leaders trying to square circles. Republican leaders in the 112th Congress have to propitiate the absolutist demands of elite and gra.s.sroots Tea Partiers while edging toward compromises with the Obama White House and the Democratic-controlled Senate, if only to keep government functioning while policy battles rage. In the months marching toward the critical elections in November 2012, we will repeatedly see Republican Congressional leaders trying to persuade GOP legislators to say no, at least in part, to the most extreme Tea Party demands. But each time a reluctant compromise is struck, it will happen only at the very last minute, after a lot of public posturing and high-wire brinksmanship, some of which surely is dangerous to the economic well-being of the country. As the conservative Washington Post commentator Michael Gerson puts it, there "are always compromises in governing. But they are harder to make when one element of a political coalition views compromise itself as the problem."

Theatrical posturing, maximalist demands, and refusals to budge until the last minute (or even beyond)-this formula works to a degree for the Republican Party and its Tea Party allies. Already, national debates have moved far to the right, as most DC officeholders and pundits debate how much to slash from the federal budget, rather than focusing on job creation in a sluggish economy. Nevertheless, even as they gain ground in battles to shape public discussions and cut government, Tea Partiers also risk putting the Republican Party at risk, in two important ways.

In the first place, business interests are increasingly nervous about maximalist, uncompromising stances in budget battles. Very early in the 112th Congress, demands to slash spending on infrastructure and transportation projects aroused pushback, not just from labor unions, but also from the Chamber of Commerce, speaking for businesses looking forward to profitable contracts on publicly financed projects.77 Businesses may love the GOP when it guts regulations and cuts taxes, but eliminating funds for public projects that reward contractors is another matter.

An even more spectacular tussle broke out several months later, when GOP Congressional leaders deferring to Tea Party demands threatened to let the United States go into default if they did not get their way in budget negotiations with Democrats. Alarmed by the consequences for credit and the threat to a nascent economic recovery, leading business and industrial a.s.sociations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National a.s.sociation of Manufacturers, banded together to write a letter to Speaker Boehner urging against such brinksmanship with the U.S. financial system.78 In the final stages of the debt ceiling battle, business leaders sent another pet.i.tion to Congress, and even the Wall Street Journal editorial board called for a procedural compromise.79 In short, GOP business allies do not always see eye to eye with the ideological elites and gra.s.sroots populists arrayed in the Tea Party. Whenever two different wings of the usual GOP coalition are at odds, legislators and candidates are sure to be caught awkwardly in the middle.

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A second risk for the GOP lies in public opinion and the struggle to attract moderate voters going into 2012. Tea Party extremism exacerbates already considerable public disillusionment with the Republican Party. Not only will many younger, more diverse, less economically well-off voters go to the polls in 2012, "independent" voters who truly are in the middle are also more likely to vote in a presidential election year. Will the Tea Party turn more voters off about the Republican brand? There is significant social science research to suggest this is a serious possibility.80 National surveys reveal increasingly negative public evaluations of the Tea Party-with the percent of Americans who tell survey researchers that they are opposed to the Tea Party now surpa.s.sing those who say they support it, in some polls by a wide margin.81 Over the past two and a half years, Americans have gradually firmed up their views of the Tea Party, following an initial period in which many were uncertain about what it was, or undecided in their a.s.sessments.82 As the picture clears, the proportion of Americans saying they like or sympathize with the Tea Party has remained relatively steady at about 25%30%. (In one surprising poll, from none other than Fox News, the Tea Party's popularity failed to beat out that of the much-maligned Internal Revenue Service!83) By contrast, the percentage of Americans saying they do not like, or oppose, the Tea Party has increased. Familiarity, in short, seems to have bred dislike. This is a troubling trend for the Republican Party going into 2012 because the party has become so closely identified with Tea Party activism.

Media cheerleaders, especially at Fox News, may have a very different calculus, however. Back in 2009, the conservative media went all out to help the emerging gra.s.sroots activism of the Tea Party spread and take hold in many states and localities. Fox anchors and hosts, in particular, also helped to reinforce the narrative of the Tea Party as a gra.s.sroots force aimed at purifying and reforming the GOP (although, tellingly, Fox hosts urged Tea Partiers not to create a third party that would divide votes against Democrats). However, as the Republican Party and the nation move into the presidential election year of 2012, Fox News will take a pragmatic stance focused on helping whatever GOP presidential candidate emerges from the primaries maneuver to claim a national majority. If "Tea Party" activism still seems helpful to GOP electoral prospects in 2012, Fox will feature it. But if not-if independents remain wary of the Tea Party and the brand loses popularity-then Fox will switch gears. It will tout the supposed mainstream credentials and economic message of the GOP presidential candidate. Fox will feature whatever themes seem most likely to help Republicans win the presidency, gain control of the Senate, and hold the House. Quite likely, this will mean taking the spotlight off past policy moves of dubious popularity-like the Ryan budget of 2011-and also downplaying those gra.s.sroots activists so vividly featured in 2009 and 2010. The mainstream media may focus on the Tea Party as "controversial," but if the Tea Party continues to lose appeal to the general voting public, Fox and friends will try to change the focus. In an early sign of this likely change of network policy, Glenn Beck was sent packing by Fox management in early 2011.5 This brings us to the gra.s.sroots Tea Partiers themselves. What about their role leading into November 2012? In many Republican-leaning districts and states, the efforts of gra.s.sroots Tea Partiers to take control of GOP committees and keep a close eye on the votes of GOP elected officials will guarantee continued Tea Party clout inside the Republican Party itself. Many senators, representatives, state-level officials-and GOP candidates for those offices-will have to propitiate their local Tea Party leaders to maintain enthusiasm among core conservative voters. Yet as we discussed in Chapter 5, Republican politicians may have a hard time simultaneously satisfying Tea Party activists and the nonTea Party voters they also need to win. GOP officials and candidates will struggle to appeal both ways, and they will not be able to turn fully away from Tea Partiers in most places. Even if the Fox spotlight shifts, and even if the national public registers wariness or negative evaluations of the "Tea Party" going into 2012, gra.s.sroots Tea Partiers in many places are organized, determined, and socially interconnected. Whatever Harry Reid may like to think, they will not go away.

Gra.s.sroots Tea Party involvement in the GOP presidential primaries may also be intense, but may not add up to a united effort for a winning candidate. In our interviews with Tea Partiers around the country, we asked about preferences for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination and got very scattered answers. Those who liked Sarah Palin considered her not viable as a general election candidate; and some did not like her. Many had nice things to say about Mike Huckabee before he decided not to run, and we presume that some of those Tea Partiers later took a liking to Michele Bachmann. We heard nothing positive about Newt Gingrich, and universal skepticism or negativity about Mitt Romney (because of his health plan, the precursor to ObamaCare, and because he is not considered trustworthy). This or that minor GOP candidate got a positive mention here or there-including Herman Cain. When Donald Trump was bl.u.s.tering about Obama's birth certificate, he got a chuckle and an "Atta boy" from some Tea Partiers, but no one seemed to take him seriously as a presidential contender.

The Tea Partiers we met in various states had no consensus or shared enthusiasm for any particular GOP presidential possibility in the early stages. One New Hampshire Republican linked to the Tea Party told us that he expects supporters to unite behind one candidate in late 2011 or early 2012. A broadly popular candidate like Rick Perry may inspire the Tea Partiers, who dislike Mitt Romney and would prefer that he not win the GOP nomination. The split between social conservatives and libertarians could become evident, as some Tea Partiers go for candidates favorable to Christian conservative priorities, and others deliver votes to Ron Paul. Two of the early GOP primaries, in Iowa and South Carolina, are likely to give strong voice to the socially conservative wing of the Tea Party. The New Hampshire primary could give greater leverage to libertarians, but that primary is an "open" contest, where independents and Democrats can vote as well as registered Republicans. Tea Partiers in New Hampshire may not have as much leverage as they hope in that critical early contest.

The key point is this: when the general election enters full swing in the spring of 2012, Tea Partiers as such will end up supporting whoever runs on the GOP line against the hated Barack Obama. The hard-core activists will all vote for Republicans down the line. Gra.s.sroots Tea Partiers will not, however, have very much sway in the broader electorate. Many Republicans not identified with the Tea Party, and many independents who could vote GOP, may be turned off by the gra.s.sroots Tea Party style and by far-right policy priorities. Even if mainstream Republicans and many independents join Tea Partiers to vote for the same GOP contenders in 2012 contests, the larger electorate will not be as open to the Tea Party message as it was in 2010.

Younger Americans, including people of more diverse ethnic, racial, and cla.s.s backgrounds, will make up a higher proportion of the 2012 electorate than they did in 2010. The types of voters whose share of the vote will increase may or may not go for Democrats versus Republicans, but they are not very amenable to Tea Party messages or very likely to interact with Tea Party activists-except, perhaps, with an aunt, uncle, or grandparent at Thanksgiving dinner! In addition to shifting social categories and networks in the 2012 electorate, inc.u.mbent GOP officials who have taken strong right-wing policy stands will make the Tea Partyinfluenced agenda of the Republican Party much more visible to ordinary voters.

That agenda is not proving consistently popular. For younger, working-age adults, above all, the GOP budget ideas are a clear threat-not just to the social safety net, such as it is, but to education and health care funding on which many working people and their children depend. Younger Americans are also likely to be turned off by the anti-gay social policies pushed by Christian conservative gra.s.sroots Tea Partiers, as well as by the racial and ethnic stereotypes underlying Tea Party ideology.6 And many legal immigrants are repelled by the strong gra.s.sroots Tea Party emphasis on draconian border and police measures to hara.s.s and deport undoc.u.mented residents.

Ironically, the Ryan budget pushed by elite Tea Party forces has also raised concerns among middle-aged and elderly voters who might otherwise approve the GOP budgetary messages. Those messages, after all, stress holding down taxes and cutting public spending-above all, on programs that serve children and young adults. But a proposal to radically restructure Medicare, even if slated to take effect only in 2021, can easily frighten elderly voters. It certainly alarms adults 45 to 55 years old, the sons and daughters of today's elderly. After all, Medicare is not just an "old people's program," it is a cornerstone of family security because, in its absence, working-age adults would have to take funds from their family budgets to help cover health care costs for grandma and grandpa. Americans live in families, and most people will not sit still and watch grandmother or grandfather go without necessary health care.

In the electoral big picture, in sum, the Tea Party had the wind at its back between 2008 and 2010, but it is now headed into crosswinds if not counter-force gales. Americans will be dealing with more of a known Tea Party agenda in 2012, much of it unpopular stuff from right-wing think tanks; moreover, Americans will vote on it in greater, more diverse numbers than in 2010. Voters in 2012, including many younger people and minorities, won't merely decide if they like or dislike Democrats; they will be able to evaluate policies backed by Republicans at the behest of the ideological advocacy organizations identified with the Tea Party.

Social scientists are not good at predicting future events, so we stipulate that we do not know whether Barack Obama will be reelected in 2012, or how the balance of Republicans versus Democrats will sort out in the House, the Senate, and the states. At the national level, virtually any combination of outcomes is possible-from, on the one extreme, Obama winning reelection along with the Senate barely staying in Democratic hands and the House barely swinging back to the Democrats, to, on the other extreme, GOP victories sweeping the presidency and both houses of Congress. A mixed outcome is very possible.

It is irritating to be unable to prognosticate the inst.i.tutional outcomes with any certainty because the policy consequences are likely to be quite different, depending on which scenario comes to fruition. A GOP sweep would lead to the hobbling if not repeal of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, and possibly put Medicare and Social Security on the privatization block. A Democratic sweep (even partial Democratic victories that include surprisingly large gains in the House) would sustain all of these social programs and probably lead to tax increases on the very rich. Another way to express the policy stakes of 2012 is to say that, even if the Tea Party loses coherence and popularity and weighs less heavily in an enlarged electorate, the enormous leverage it has gained over the national policy agenda after 2010 could survive and deepen anyway. Tea Partybacked conservative Republicans gained a lot of ground in 2010. And GOP victories in 2012, even with slight margins, would be sufficient to block tax increases on the wealthy and shift the fiscal burden toward cuts in major social ent.i.tlements inherited from the Great Society and the New Deal. The stakes in the 2012 election are very high.


Prognostication aside, what is the normative bottom line for the Tea Party as a force in American democracy? Some readers may laugh at this question-a.s.suming that the Tea Party is either laudable or d.a.m.nably bad, depending on where one stands on its policy priorities. But the vitality of gra.s.sroots engagement in the Tea Party raises poignant questions even for observers who disagree strongly with what the Tea Party stands for.

This was brought home to both authors at a Harvard forum in March 2011. We had recently completed several rounds of interviews with gra.s.s-roots Tea Partiers, and our findings came up during a discussion of Barack Obama's presidency and conservative reactions to it. Most people in the audience were liberals (or progressives critical of Democrats from the left). One questioner was a professor who has done important research on partic.i.p.atory democracy, and she knew that both of us care about active civic engagement and have studied its manifestations in America, past and present. The professor asked the most difficult question: "Even if you question their policy stands," she said, "what do you make of the active citizen engagement of Tea Partiers? Is their engagement a good thing for American democracy-or not?" The room fell unusually silent as we shared our reflections.

On the ground, in local rallies and regular meetings, the gra.s.sroots Tea Party is a model of active citizenship. Ordinary men and women, some previously active in politics and others with civic experience under their belts, take voluntary initiatives to make events happen and run meetings. Without pay, they pitch in to do everything from setting up chairs and handing out leaflets, to arranging for speakers, putting out newsletters, and preparing refreshments. At Tea Party meetings, people ask questions and make comments after a speaker has finished his or her presentation. And when groups discuss priorities and decide how to divvy up tasks, quite a few ordinary women and men step up to chair a task force or carry on a key duty. Tea Party meetings have the same "let's pitch in and get it done" air about them as clubs and lodges and church societies throughout America's past as "a nation of joiners."7 The willingness of gra.s.sroots Tea Partiers to plunge into new realms and learn about the nitty-gritty of politics is also remarkable. Midway through our interviews on the Middle Peninsula of Virginia, we were struck by a telling contrast. Between us, the two authors have attended many meetings of highly educated liberals in and around academic communities. In those meetings, detailed knowledge of public policies is common. People know exactly what is in Obama's health reform law, exactly how all kinds of taxes work, and can tell you who pays for and benefits from government expenditures. They can debate the intricacies of cap and trade versus carbon taxes. But even liberal PhDs are often extremely vague about how U.S. politics actually works. People will proclaim in meetings that President Obama should just give a speech on a particular priority-and act as if that would get it done, forgetting the complexities of Congressional rules and alliance-building. Opinionated, educated liberals often have no idea what happens in state legislatures, local government boards, or political party committees. Gra.s.sroots Tea Partiers, by contrast, know the rules and procedures for pa.s.sing bills and advancing regulations in detail-for local, state, and national government. But at the same time, they hold wildly inaccurate views of what is in, or not in, public policies or legislative proposals. They know process, but flub content-the exact opposite of the academic liberals.

For Tea Partiers, a lot of study goes into mastering legislative and political processes. We saw evidence of that work getting done in almost every Tea Party locale we visited. A few members take it upon themselves to track all bills of a certain type in the state legislature, for example, to figure out who is voting on them and when. Using the official names and numbers of the bills, and explaining the steps for moving things through committees to floor votes, they let other Tea Party members in their area know exactly when to send a letter or email, and to whom, to push for preferred outcomes. The same thing happens with legislation in the national Congress, and with topics about to be taken up by local government committees and boards. often, members of a Tea Party group also figure out the rules for nominations and decision-making for the Republican Party in their area- and mobilize people to attend the relevant meetings and make their voices heard, or cast their votes for key party offices. Leaders of local Tea Parties undertake this kind of research and orchestrate actions to take advantage of what is learned about pending legislation or key GOP decisions. But many regular members pitch in, too. They have learned to use the Internet to track government actions, and they exhibit a mastery of legislative process and arcane party rules that compares well to the knowledge of political scientists who specialize in these areas.

We found ourselves impressed by Tea Partiers' mastery of political processes. But we were also repeatedly shocked at the wildly inaccurate things people unblinkingly believe about what government does, how it is financed, and what is actually included (or not) in key pieces of legislation or regulation. In Virginia, for example, Tea Partiers confidently told us that the Affordable Care Act of 2010 ("ObamaCare" in their parlance) includes both death panel

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