Tea Party and the Right  
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Tea Partiers V. Millennials: Why the Far Right Disdains Young People, Even Their Own Kids

Sociologist Theda Skocpol explains what drives the angry right, and what to expect next from them.
 
 
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Tea Party protest.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

 

 

The past weeks’ showdown in Washington, D.C., has shocked and perplexed some observers. Theda Skocpol was not among them. Skocpol, a veteran Harvard professor, is the author of books on topics ranging from the politics of the U.S. welfare state (Protecting Soldiers and Mothers) to the state of grassroots political engagement ( Diminished Democracy), and of the definitive social science tome on the Tea Party ( The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, with Vanessa Williamson).

With the immediate debt ceiling/shutdown showdown coming to a close, Salon called up Skocpol Wednesday to discuss how the media misunderstand the Tea Party, how an unpopular movement can move so many members of Congress, and why the right hates Obama’s moderate healthcare law so much. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

Has this month shown us anything we didn’t know about the Tea Party?

I think people in mainstream media and D.C. politics kind of wrote the Tea Party off after 2012. They thought, “Well, this isn’t popular anymore, and the Democrats succeeded in defeating the primary goal of Tea Party forces.” But I think that was always misreading what the Tea Party was about. It’s been there all along to keep Republicans from compromising. I think we’ve seen over the past two weeks that they have the ability to just tie up the federal government and put the country at risk, and they don’t show any signs of backing down. And I don’t think they will, even if they’re defeated in this episode.

Frances Fox Piven  argued to me that the Tea Party is something old and something new – it has some demographic continuity with the Birchers or Christian Right, but also represents a genuine shift motivated in part by fear that white people are losing their privilege in the U.S. Do you agree?

In many ways I do. We actually did the research, both by pulling together national [data] and by doing observations in groups in three regions. There’s no question that at the grassroots, the approximately half of all Republican-identifiers who think of themselves as Tea Partiers 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. We argued in 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. So that’s the grassroots component.

Now there is a somewhat new development at the top. There’s no sense in which the grassroots protests are a fake, or a creation of big money forces. But we have seen the unleashing of billionaire-backed, highly ideological groups that are outside the Republican apparatus, itself symbolized by people like Dick Armey. And much more recently, by Jim DeMint giving up a Senate position to move to Heritage, and turn Heritage into a much more hard-edged political machine. These guys are calling the shots about what happens in Congress. And that’s why we saw the  amazing thing [Tuesday] of Heritage Action, under DeMint, indicating that it would score a vote for the leaders’ proposals negatively – within 20 minutes, [Republican leaders] switched. And that’s because they fear now the aroused grassroots activists, the people who paid attention and vote in Republican primaries. And equally, they fear money coming to challenge them as ideologically impure if they vote the wrong way on key legislation.

So it’s a pincers movement – top-down [and] bottom-up. It really has taken control over the governing part of the Republican Party. It’s probably got less effectiveness in elections.

 
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