Tea Partyers' grave fear: Why they disdain young people -- even their own!

Sociologist Theda Skocpol tells Salon what drives the angry right -- and what comes after the government shutdown

Published October 17, 2013 10:30PM (EDT)

Louie Gohmert                         (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Louie Gohmert (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

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 grass-roots 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 grass roots, approximately 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. 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 grass-roots component.

Now there is a somewhat new development at the top. There’s no sense in which the grass-roots 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 grass-roots 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.

“Pincers”? How so?

What makes this so powerful is not popularity. People don’t like them; that’s irrelevant. When you’ve got a bloc of legislators in the states and in the Congress, and they can be empowered by very attentive voters who vote in primaries, and then by big money funders who are the ones to challenge other Republicans who don’t go along with the extremists, then you’ve got really a double whammy. The only thing that could counter this would be if more traditional conservative forces started raising money that they used to protect people from challenges on their right. And there are some signs that that’s beginning to happen, but not very many.

Do you expect we’ll see more of that?

We may. But I think this is going on for a while. These folks are coming back at it again in a few months, and they will keep coming at it.

Some Democrats I talk to have this view that this will not happen again in the near future because the voters are going to punish the Republican Party – by taking levers away from the Republican Party and by weakening the leverage of the Tea Party within the GOP.

I think it’s way too soon to conclude that. There’s a huge difference in the electorate that turns out in the midterms. If they do it again next year -- which I think they will, at least some of it – it could change the equation in November 2014 a little bit. But let's get real here.

I mean, you’re going to have to talk about taking the majority away from Republicans in the House of Representatives. You have to talk about getting rid of the filibuster check in the Senate. And I don’t think many liberal commentators are paying any attention to the very important developments that have occurred across so many American states where very extreme Republicans have supermajorities at the moment. So that’s all got to be chipped away at, because as long as a fired-up and morally dogmatic minority, backed by ideological money, can manipulate legislatures, it can choke things up. Their goal is to show that Obama and the Democrats can’t govern, and unfortunately they have some of the levers to do that.

To what extent do you think that the tactics Republicans have taken up show something about our political institutions’ ability to work in the face of what some would call more parliamentary tactics?

Well, I don’t think this is parliamentary. I think this is truly extremist. The filibuster rules, of course, are rules, and they can change. And the ability of one or two senators to hold up everything may be something that even the minority will want to change, because you know, Sen. Ted Cruz is really a cruise missile. He has unsettled Senate Republicans plenty.

American institutions do not in any way require that the same party or the same faction controls the presidency and both houses of Congress. And so that creates openings for obstructionists to really grind everything to a halt. We’ve seen Republicans, as they fear that they can’t make it in majority elections, turn to creating new uses for old institutional mechanisms and rules. That’s what’s going on right now.

A decade ago, you observed a long-term decline in American civic participation and the groups that used to foster it. What does the Tea Party mean for that?

At the grass roots, it’s a return to some traditional methods. The grass-roots Tea Party actually formed, at their height, about 900 local groups -- genuinely new groups. I wrote in "Diminished Democracy" that the right has been more effective at either sustaining or re-creating federated action, which is the key to American politics -- to be able to organize across many districts, many states, and still be part of something national. The Tea Party is a different kind of manifestation of that.

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.

“Destroyed the organizational integrity of the Republican Party.” How so?

Republican Party committees can’t necessarily keep themselves at all levels from being taken over or end-runned by Tea Party forces. The leadership in the Senate, [and] especially in the House, can’t control their various actions, can’t use a combination of carrots and sticks to put things together. It means even that in elections, 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.

The Confederate flag – is there some larger significance in that popping up when and where it did?

There’s a strain in the Tea Party, especially at the grass roots, that’s xenophobic and racist, and certainly the Confederate flag also symbolizes regional resistance to federal power – there’s lots of themes here that resemble nullification, and even the pre-Civil War crisis.

But I don’t really think it’s helpful to announce that the entire Tea Party base is racist.  I don’t think it’s that simple. For one thing, they’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.

They think young people are not measuring up. That the grandsons and daughters and nieces and nephews expect to get free college loans, and don’t get a job, and hold ideas that are not very American in their view -- like Obama. Obama symbolizes all of this.

How does that play out in the politics around the Affordable Care Act, and these accusations of raiding Medicare?

One of the big mysteries that we’ve tried to deal with in our research is why the Affordable Care Act, which after all is fairly moderate -- it's an extremely important piece of legislation, but it’s moderate in its means -- why would that become a flashpoint?

Well, despite all of the particular policy features that came from conservative origins, it is a powerfully redistributive law. The people left out of the insurance system have been lower income and more moderate income workers.  They’re a younger population, browner and blacker. And then you come along with a president who symbolizes everything that conservatives and Tea Partyers hate. And he proposes to raise taxes on wealthier people, Medicare beneficiaries and business to pay for insurance for those people who’ve been left out. So Obamacare really symbolizes the idea that this new America is going to take something from “our America.”

And for the ideological forces, Freedomworks, Americans for Prosperity, Heritage Action -- you just have to go back to Bill Kristol’s memo in 1993 on Clinton healthcare. They’re worried about filling in one of the big holes in the American welfare state, and creating a positive relationship between the government and working-age people that will make it hard for Republicans to win elections or proceed with their preference: to roll back Social Security and Medicare, let alone another big piece of the American welfare state.

Another thing you’ll hear from Democrats is that every past program like this has been controversial at the time, and then becomes popular to the point Republicans won’t even admit they want to get rid of it. Is there reason to expect the same here?

Yes. It’s going to be a tough battle because of the new levers the Supreme Court gave to the states to reduce the Medicaid expansion. There is a question in my mind as to whether a regional group around Texas will stay out permanently. But over the last month, while we’ve been having an Armageddon-like battle supposedly over Obamacare in Washington, several more Republican-led states have accepted the Medicaid expansion, or are on the verge of doing it. In the final analysis, this is about money for healthcare, and states and localities as well can’t be denying care to people who get sick in this country.

Business interests and hospitals and doctors are grudgingly accepting this vast expansion of resources in their sector, and the disconnect in public opinion is so extreme. If you ask them about the particular provisions in the law, almost all of them are very popular, including with majorities of Republicans. So once this thing is actually carried through -- and it’s obviously not going to be easy, and it’s not clear that the Obama administration is entirely up to it -- this law is here to stay. It’s not going anywhere. By 2016, it will not be reversible. And by about five years after that, people will be wondering what all the fuss was about.

You said the right is more effective at building the kind of organizations that wield political leverage. What do you think explains that?

Partly, the right in this country, over the last half-century, has recognized that fighting across many localities and states is worth it. And they’ve developed mechanisms for doing that, and that turned out to have a big payoff in Congress. There’s also a whole series of reasons why older conservative voters, backed by ideologues, have this combination of apocalyptic moral certitude with organization that really gets results. Especially in obstructing things in American politics.

I don’t happen to think that the left and the center-left could imitate this. For one thing, they don’t have the presence across as many states and districts. But it’s also not clear it’s a model worth imitating. I think the real problem that you’ve got right now on the left is how to defeat this stuff, how to contain it, how to beat it -- given the permeability of American political institutions to this kind of thing. And I don’t think it’s clear what’s going to happen.

By Josh Eidelson

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