Restlessness Unleashed: The Tea Partiers and the Lessons of History

Members of the Tea Party movement, according to liberal pundits are angry right-wing extremists.

Members of the Tea Party movement, according to liberal pundits are angry right-wing extremists. The progressive news website Alternet describes the movement as being “built on fear, violence, and race resentment.” New York Times columnist Frank Rich views the Tea Party as an invention of ultra-conservative billionaires and plugged-in operatives. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne thinks it is merely a “successful scam.” A Rasmussen Reports survey reveals that “a plurality (46%) of the political class says most members of the Tea Party are racist, but 53% of mainstream voters disagree.”

  This fear and loathing of the Tea Party movement is clouding too many peoples’ judgment. If you don’t understand the Tea Party, you can’t develop political strategies that capitalize on the voter sentiment underlying it.   It’s helpful to gain some historical perspective in order to think about how campaigns may tap into what is better understood as a century-long brewing Jeffersonian reaction to the triumph and overreach of Hamiltonian nationalism. What? Exactly. Read on.   Although 73% of Tea Party supporters are conservative and 53% are angry, according a recent New York Times/CBS News survey, 71% do not believe it is ever justified to engage in violent action against the government. Eight percent consider themselves Democrats, 43% Independents, and 49% Republicans, according to recent Gallup polls. Even though a large plurality of members (48%) in past elections have “usually voted Republican,” according to recent surveys, it should not be overlooked that only a few Tea Partiers have been consistently faithful to the GOP. In fact, more say they have voted equally for both Republicans and Democrats (25%) in past elections than say they have always voted Republican (18%).   Take away #1: Ideology is more important to these voters than party. They can be persuaded to support a candidate who agrees with them.   But this conservatism is not synonymous with social conservatism. Tea Partiers are most in agreement about the role of government and least in agreement on social issues. Ninety-two percent prefer a smaller government with fewer services over a larger government with more services, but only 32% believe that abortion should not be available. A total of 57% believe that gay couples should either be allowed to marry (16%) or form civil unions (41%). Although more conservative (traditional may be a better descriptive) than the public as a whole, the Tea Party is not the religious right. Only 39% of Tea Partiers identify themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians and only 38% say they attend religious services every week. Moreover, they admire Newt Gingrich (10%) more than Sarah Palin (9%) or Glenn Beck (1%).   Take away #2: An attractive candidate to Tea Partiers focuses his/her campaign on limiting the role of the federal government, reducing the federal debt, empowering the states, increasing individual liberty, ending political corruption, and ousting the elitists from the nation’s capital. This – by the way – is Jefferson (see his presidential campaign in 1800).   Although veteran reporter Dan Balz of the Washington Post explains that Tea Partiers share some characteristics with Perot’s voters (more male than female, mostly white, and about a third with college degrees), he sees little overlap. But his assessment only compares “snap shots” of the movements. He fails to consider how Perot’s voters have changed over time – after enduring a “Republican Revolution,” a presidential scandal and impeachment battle, a nearly tied presidential election, a terrorist attack on American soil, an incompetent governmental response to Hurricane Katrina, a near tripling of the federal debt (from about $4 trillion in 1992 to $11 trillion in 2009), and two long wars far outside our geographic region (Afghanistan and Iraq).   Balz asserts that “age” is a “revealing” difference between the two groups – 63% of Perot’s voters were 18-44, while only 44% of Tea Party supporters were under 45 – but he forgets that Perot’s voters who were between 27-44 in 1992 are now, eighteen years later, between 45-62. He then notes that Tea Partiers are wealthier than Perot’s voters. Yet one would assume that as Perot’s voters aged and neared retirement, as is typical of most Americans, they earned higher salaries and accumulated more wealth especially during the “boom years” of the late 1990s.   He also states that Perot’s voters were not as conservative, nor as Republican as the Tea Partiers. But then again, according to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who identify as conservative has grown from 36% in 1992 to 40% in 2009. Also from 2000 to 2009, the percentage of Republicans who consider themselves conservative has grown from 61% to 69% and the percentage of Independents who consider themselves conservative has grown from 29% to 35%. In this past year, Gallup found that the percentage of independents who lean Republican has grown from 11% to 17%. Beyond these numbers, one should consider that in 1992 the incumbent president was a Republican and in 2009 the incumbent president was a Democrat, meaning that one would expect a greater number of the voters who are dissatisfied with government and the incumbent president’s administration to identify more with the party out of power.   Take away #3: Many Tea Partiers are Perot voters who have grown older, wealthier, more conservative, and angrier about the governmental and partisan failures they’ve witnessed. If you want to know more about these voters, focus your attention on Ohio’s presidential vote since 1972 (see table on page 38). While the number of voters has increased by approximately 1.5 million, the turnout and the swings in support reveal a penchant among Ohioans for small government, fiscal conservatives who are somewhat anti-establishment – including some Democrats and Independents. They’re also not opposed to staying home when no candidate fits the bill (see 1988 and 1996).   Take away #4: The Tea Party voters you thought were part of the far-right “fringe” should really be thought of as part of the Republican-leaning Independent “swing.”   None of this is new in American history. Today’s restless political environment bears a striking resemblance to the historical period that spawned the progressive movement.   In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt said: “At this moment we are passing through a period of great unrest – social, political, and industrial unrest.” Yet by the time he implored reformers to do more than “muck rake” and to pursue “a resolute and eager ambition to secure the betterment of the individual and the nation,” the people’s “fierce discontent” had been roiling the country for 30 years – since the highly controversial 1876 presidential election.   In 1884 Democrat Grover Cleveland won the presidency. Ousted in 1888 by Republican Benjamin Harrison, Cleveland retook the White House for the Democrats in 1892. These partisan oscillations were not confined to the executive branch. In 1882 Republicans lost majority control of the House. In 1888 the Democrats turned back control to the Republicans. But two short years later, in the 1890 midterm, the Republicans not only failed to secure the majority, but lost 93 of the 332 seats in the House. All this occurred before the Panic of 1893.   The historical record shows that these elections were brutally competitive and appallingly corrupt. Disgusted with state and local political bosses and their patronage-fueled machines, middle-class voters swung from party to party, hoping a true reformer would make good on his promises to transcend partisanship, control big business, and cleanse government.   Aside from these tumultuous elections, two presidents were brought down by assassins’ bullets. In 1881, James Garfield was shot by a “Stalwart” who believed Garfield insufficiently grateful (he had not awarded enough of the presidential spoils) to his faction of the Republican Party. In 1901, William McKinley was shot by an anarchist who was convinced that McKinley’s only concern was the wealthy industrialists.   Similarly turbulent, these last 30 years show popular support swinging bizarrely from Carter to Reagan to Perot to Clinton to Gingrich, and back to Clinton again. The partisan wrangling over the presidency in 2000 was also eerily reminiscent of 1876. Despite Bush’s reelection in 2004, the Democrats prevailed in Congress in 2006 and captured the presidency in 2008.   Tellingly, over the last three years, an average of only one in five Americans have said they were satisfied. Somewhat ominously, since 1979 when Gallup began this measure, there have only been eight years when the average percentage of Americans who are satisfied has reached 50% or higher (1984, 1985, 1986, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002).   Though the Progressives argued for empowering the national government and employing more administrative professionals and the Tea Partiers argue for emboldening state governments and electing more ordinary citizens, both hope to root out the partisan corruption in the politics (the NBC/WSJ poll found that 42 percent of Tea Party supporters viewed their involvement as a protest against “business as usual in Washington”).   Take away #5: When popular support swings wildly, the people are trying to send a simple message (“listen to us”), not endorse a partisan platform.   After McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt ascended the presidency and won reelection in 1904. Although Roosevelt did not run as a Progressive until 1912, he had been a champion of their cause since President Harrison had appointed him to the Civil Service Commission in 1889. This is Hamilton (see Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” platform in his 1912 campaign).   By the time Democrat Woodrow Wilson became president, Progressives were a significant force challenging the two-party system. In 1912, nine Progressives won seats in the House and one Progressive earned a seat in the Senate. Wilson knew that he should adopt much of Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” and set aside his own “New Freedom” doctrine (a recasting of Jefferson’s philosophy), if he hoped to win reelection in 1916. Wilson did and he won.   Since that time, both Democrats and Republicans, until about the mid-1960s, continued to support an ever-expanding Progressive vision of the federal government.   Remaking America, Progressives passed constitutional amendments that levied a federal income tax on individuals, enfranchised women and young voters, and outlawed alcohol and the poll tax. Franklin Roosevelt grew the size and jurisdiction of the federal government far beyond what Hamilton would have ever endorsed, establishing numerous programs and agencies. Progressive presidents led America into not one, but four wars (World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam). Over a 20-year period, presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson worked to secure the civil rights of African-Americans, while the Supreme Court applied the 14th Amendment to the civil liberties of all Americans.   The conservative backlash began in 1964, when Barry Goldwater sided against the Civil Rights Act, believing that the legislation stretched the federal government’s power too far. Although Republicans currently carry the torch of small government conservatives, every Republican president since Nixon has presided over an increase in the national debt as a percentage of GDP. No wonder Tea Partiers are so dissatisfied with their political choices.   Taken Together: Tea Partiers are the flip side of the Progressives’ coin. Their votes are not locked up, but they do favor Republicans and small government conservatives. They want principled candidates willing to take on government spending and reduce the federal debt. More generally, they’re looking for hope because they’re disgusted with the current political system which they view, according to Stanford political scientist Larry Diamond, as comprising “two bankrupt parties bankrupting the country.”   Lara Brown, Ph.D., is assistant professor of political science at Villanova University. She is the author of Jockeying for the American Presidency: The Political Opportunism of Aspirants.

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