The Tea Party Isn't Conservative

tags: Tea Party, Richard Hofstadter, paranoid style, John Birch Society, Christopher S. Parker



5-13-13

Christopher S. Parker is Stuart A. Scheingold professor of social justice and political science at the University of Washington. His book “Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in Contemporary America,” from Princeton University Press, is now available. Twitter: @blackbruin


Credit: Wiki Commons.

Who, or what, is the Tea Party? Its leaders claim to be conservative, yet the regularity with which the movement and its supporters stray from traditional American conservatism is, frankly, shocking.

This claim isn’t based on wild presumption or anecdotal evidence. Rather, this conclusion is based upon the most complete empirical study of the Tea Party, and its supporters, to date.

The Tea Party, and its supporters, claim they’re about core conservative principles such as small government and fiscal responsibility. They claim to resist the policies of the Obama administration on ideological grounds: Government, they say, is too big and spends too much.

But true conservatives are also concerned about social, political, and economic stability -- something that doesn’t seem to resonate with Tea Party conservatives.

Consider the economic instability caused by Tea Party intransigence during the first debt ceiling debate. Moreover, we can’t forget the social instability the Tea Party contributes to American society with its resistance to gun control, believing it will facilitate their victimization at the hands of black and brown people. Further, Tea Party-driven secession movements in several states are hardly conducive to the political stability craved by true conservatives.

So, who are the Tea Party and their supporters? Are they in line with the conservative tradition in which small government works in concert with stability? Or, are they more in tune with the pseudo-conservatives (as opposed to real) to which Richard Hofstadter drew attention many years ago?

To be sure, Tea Party conservatives believe in some conservative principles, but they are different from more mainstream conservatives in at least one important respect: True conservatives aren’t paranoid; Tea Party conservatives are.

I’m not the first to reach this conclusion. It’s no secret that Tea Party conservatives view President Obama with contempt. However, I am the first with the ability to document it empirically.

Political paranoia is nothing new. In fact, the paranoid style in American politics has a long history. Identified by Hofstadter in the 1960s, it goes back to the early days of the Republic. It tends to focus on wild conspiracies, ones in which the future is understood in apocalyptic terms. Until now, however, no one has pinned it down empirically

In a University of Washington survey conducted from January to March 2011 involving 1,504 adults throughout the country, we asked, "Do you believe Obama is destroying the country?" While 36 percent of the conservatives surveyed believe Obama is destroying the country, only 6 percent of people who identify themselves as conservatives, but not Tea Party sympathizers, say Obama is destroying America. But 71 percent of Tea Party conservatives say he is.

As the data suggest, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. When one considers whether or not they prefer the president’s policies succeed or fail, another gap between Tea Party conservatives and true conservatives appears. Some 76 percent of Tea Party conservatives actually would prefer his policies fail, while only 32 percent of other conservatives wish that to happen, according to the study.

Why such strong negative feeling? Perhaps it’s because 75 percent of Tea Party conservatives believe the president’s policies are socialist, versus 40 percent of non-Tea Party conservatives.

Why, one might ask, do Tea Party conservatives believe the president’s policies are socialist -- or un-American? Perhaps it’s another way in which they can attribute difference to him, the type of perceived difference that, for them, places him beyond American identity. Doing so, of course, permits them to question the legitimacy of his presidency.

The study also indicates that a sizable minority of Tea Party conservatives surveyed -- 27 percent -- believe the president is a practicing Muslim, compared with 16 percent of non-Tea Party conservatives.

Is Obama seen as a practicing Christian? The data is clear on this: some 46 percent of mainstream conservatives say yes, but just 27 percent of Tea Party conservatives agree. And when it comes to the president’s country of origin, just 40 percent of self-identified Tea Party conservatives believe he was born in the United States, as compared with 55 percent of non-Tea Party conservatives.

Are the Tea Partiers following the American conservative tradition, or is it best to look elsewhere for their forbears? I would suggest that we can look for the roots of the modern Tea Party movement in a thread in American politics that runs from the anti-Masonic movement of the early eighteenth century, through the xenophobic Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s, the anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, and the paranoia found in the principles of the John Birch Society just a few years later.

For example, the John Birch Society, dominated by white, middle-class, middle-aged, Protestant men, believed that the American way of life was threatened by Eastern elites with communist sympathies, and that the civil rights movement served as a means of hastening the emergence of a totalitarian state.

In other words, the administration policy was viewed essentially as a Trojan horse for dramatic change and determined undermining of our democracy. Sound familiar?

The data demands we call the Tea Party what it is: a pseudo-conservative movement dressed up to appear that it is following in the tradition of American conservatism. In other words, it’s really a continuation of another style that has surfaced periodically in American politics, characterized by (in Hofstadter’s words) “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.”

As Hofstadter pointed out, this style has been made significant (and dangerous) because it’s been adopted by “more or less normal people.”

Wiser people than I can try to explain why the Tea Party has risen to prominence now. It would be easy to tick a list of factors: the election of our first African American president, the changed demographics in our country, the vast social changes under way in our communities and our families.

But consider me a skeptic when Tea Party supporters call upon a conservative tradition to which they have but a slight claim.


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