Who Are The Tea Partyers, What Are They Achieving, And Do They Have Staying Power?

In a recent interview with Josh Eidelson at Salon, Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol characterizes Tea Party membership based on her research:

[A]pproximately half of all Republican-identifiers who think of themselves as Tea Partyers are a very conservative-minded old group of white people, some of whom do go all the way back to Goldwater and the Birch Society. They are skeptical of the Republican Party as it has been run in recent years. But they both hate and fear the Democratic Party and Obama. […] [I]n many ways that anger comes from alarm on the part of these older conservatives that they’re losing their country — that’s what they say. That they’re the true Americans, and they’re losing control of American politics. […]

[T]hey’re just as riled up about immigration as they are about blacks. There’s certainly a worry about a change in the social composition of America. But we found in our research that they also resent young people — including in their own families.

And Skocpol thinks the Tea Partyers have boxed-in the GOP:

They’ve actually destroyed the organizational integrity of the Republican Party right now. That’s why the situation is so scary for the United States. The Washington press corps wants to write again and again that both sides should compromise. The fact of the matter is that Obama doesn’t have anybody to compromise with. He can’t make a deal, because the Tea Party forces have discombobulated the Republican leadership. John Boehner can’t make a deal with anybody. He can’t deliver even on what he wants for breakfast. […]

Republicans can’t control the message they’re sending out. You can declare that you’re going to have outreach to women and minorities, and the next day Rush Limbaugh can say god-knows-what. People can show up at the U.S. Capitol with a Confederate flag in front of the White House. Things are kind of out of control.

At The New Republic, Nate Cohn makes a sobering point that functions as a corollary to Skocpol’s (and reminds us of just how caught in a double-bind the GOP is): if you think that the Tea Party has harmed the GOP’s functioning and brand (and it has), it’s also true that the GOP cannot actually win elections without the Tea Party:

If Republicans think they have a pathway to victory without the tea party, they’re sorely mistaken. The tea party is not some small, fringe element of the Republican coalition. It’s not the Buchanan 2000 vote, or something. The tea party is the Republican Party, at least as much as any single constituency can claim, with the possible and overlapping exception of Evangelicals.

White Tea Partiers and Evangelicals are largely the early 21st century Republican Party and they will rise or fall (precipitously) together. This means the demographic writing is on the wall, Nebuchadnezzar. In light of Cohn’s and Skocpol’s observations, I can’t help but think of Dylan Thomas (and Rodney Dangerfield).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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9 Responses to Who Are The Tea Partyers, What Are They Achieving, And Do They Have Staying Power?

  1. Mikels Skele says:

    They may well be anachronisms, but they can cause a hell of a lot of mischief on their way out. Going out in a blaze of glory, and taking as many of us with them as they can, eh?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Yes, I think you are right. My theory is that if the economy can manage to grow on average about 2% per year over the next decade, the demographics and general prosperity of the country will have shifted in a direction where the Republican Party will simply have to moderate, fracture, or die. The brand is damaged.

      The wildcard is a crisis that disrupts the current trends (a global plague; an incident of nuclear terrorism; a running of the global economy off a cliff by a US default, etc.). Republicans, to return to the dominance they once enjoyed during the Reagan-Bush Sr. years (and during the GW Bush years), need a crisis–a huge one.

  2. Staffan says:

    It’s not the Tea Party that is the problem – it’s the fact that America is falling to pieces. Look around: are there any wealthy stable nations without a dominant group in the world? When Russia’s dominance over Eastern Europe ended we saw Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia breaking up along ethnic lines. Note also how well that turned out. Serbia has an astonishingly low violent crime rate. Murder rate per 100K: Slovenia 0.7, Serbia 1.2, Bosnia-Herzgovina 1.5, Montenegro and Albania two seriously low IQ, inbred clan-based countries have a little more with 3.5 and 4.0 respectively – and then USA with 4.7. Even a country like Botswana is doing pretty well by being monocultural.

    This is similar to when I pointed out that California isn’t going to recover because countries or states with that low average intelligence don’t do well. And the same goes for diversity – what countries are doing well? Where do you find prosperity and lack of crime and corruption? It’s in places like Finland, Japan, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Australia. You want a situation where America has 3-4 groups none of which is dominant. What country combines that with peace and prosperity? That does not exist.


    You’re basically sawing off the branch you’re sitting on and saying, “that stem, it’s on the way out”.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      What is worrisome to the Tea Party is what America will look like when it is 30% Hispanic, 13% African American, and 10% Asian, setting whites below 50% of the total population. What the Tea Party doesn’t seem to realize is that California crossed this threshold about 30 years ago and the state is doing just fine. California today is about 14% Asian, 13% African American, 35% Hispanic, and 35% white. No big whoop. It’s not Armageddon. It’s nice here. Coffee color is America’s future. If California is awful in your view, then the whole country will be awful 30 years from now. But California is not awful.

      America’s fate is tied to Mexico’s and South America’s generally. It’s thus important to get policy with our southern neighbors right and we support them in developing strong economies. I see no reason why this can’t happen over the next fifty years.

      • Staffan says:

        Actually, from what I can find from the US Census California is 39 percent Whites (non-Hispanic), 38 percent Hispanics, 14 percent Asian and only 6.6 percent Black people.

        I don’t know what the Tea Partyers might think – maybe that their way of life is threatened. I think they have every right to be concerned about that.

        But you also have reason to be worried. Fact is that countries without White or East Asian majorities are all varying degrees of failure. Success with those demographics doesn’t exist on the face of the Earth. Another way of looking at it is average IQ – again, no country on Earth is a success at California’s 95 (and sinking). California is no exception to these rules, with the highest poverty rate in the union – along with really bad measures on things like job creation, health insurance, inequality, state debt etc.

        Also, according to the US Census, California has lost almost one million non-Hispanic Whites between 2000 and 2010. That’s 5.4 percent. Only Rhode Island and New Jersey lost more Whites but not by much, 6.4 and 6.2 percent respectively. Even left-leaning people like Bill Maher is considering leaving because of the high taxes. According to Washington Times he said,

        “I just want to say liberals — you could actually lose me. It’s outrageous what we’re paying — over 50 percent. I’m willing to pay my share, but yeah, it’s ridiculous,”

        So you may want to add an eroding tax base to the rest of your problems. Like Detroit…


        Click to access c2010br-05.pdf


      • Santi Tafarella says:

        I defer to your more exact statistics. I was working from memory and am pleased to have been in the ballpark.

        The bottom line (in my view) is that the United States is not Europe (obviously), and that means that its ethnic destiny over the next century is to become ever more “coffee colored” over time (for lack of a better term). I reject the notion that there are sufficient genetic differences between human races to make this worrisome to 2% economic growth (on average) over the next century. My grandchildren will probably be born around 2030 when my own children are in their late 20s. This means that when my grandchildren reach the age of fifty in 2080, they will live in an America that is at least twice as wealthy as it is today (which would put per capita income at something like 80,000-100,000 dollars a year in today’s dollars). Even if, in relative terms, America is just one country among many in 2080, and is no longer a stand-out imperial power–and even grows a bit slower than other countries–I simply don’t see why such a future is something to fret about.

        I believe that Matt Ridley’s case for rational optimism about the global human future is a good one, and that science, technology, and urbanization are going to (if anything) accelerate global economic growth (as compared with growth rates today). If we could visit the world fifty years from now, I think we would find it more prosperous for the average person, including in the United States.

  3. A view from the other side of the room…

  4. There are a lot of us with no political home – fiscally conservative, morally liberal. We tend to see this implosion of the Republican party as a good thing. The white, religious wingnuts that control the GOP are either going to force an end to to the GOP or be forced out. It is cathartic. The out of control spending by our government is as much a result of Reps and Dems. The GOP has not really cared about small government and reasonable spending for decades.

    What Dems seem to fail to see is that this massive spending only harms America. The bigger the government apparatus, the more dramatic the effects of any economic downturn. What Reps fail to see is that the vast majority of our military spending is simply corporate entitlements and just as harmful to America as the personal entitlements that they seem to despise.

    There are what, 15% of us who swing the electorate and not locked into a party. Santi, is there any case at all where you would vote for a Rep over a Dem? Like most Americans, what is best for America comes second, sticking with a political party, regardless of corruption and hypocrisy, comes first.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      There are no circumstances in the present climate where I would vote for a Republican because Democrats already tend, once in power, to govern as moderate Republicans. Once Democrats in California, for example, obtained a super-majority in both houses of the legislature and the governorship, they passed a modest tax increase combined with fiscal restraint that resulted in a balanced budget. All the rancor gave way to sensible governance.

      On the federal level, once Democrats achieve all three branches of government again, I think they’ll be fiscally disciplined, raise taxes modestly, cut military spending modestly, and set the government on a sane fiscal course. My guess is that this degree of control will come no later than 2020 and last for a decade or more until Republicans adjust to the demographic reality and become an Eisenhower-like, center-right, party again (as opposed to a far-right, Wallace-style party).

      I do think it’s sensible to fear the dynamics of Democratic over-reach at some point, going too far to the left in economic policy and ending up like France with too much government drag on the economy. But when that happens, a center-right Republican coalition that peals off Democratic moderates will emerge. In the meantime, it’s simply not wise to enable the Republican Party as it exists today by voting for it. It just delays its long-term reformation.

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