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).