But Skocpol and Williamson reject such reductionism. As they point out, “Tea Party people know that Social Security, Medicare, and veterans’ programs are government-managed, expensive, and funded with taxes.” In the Tea Party worldview, support for entitlements and abhorrence of government can coexist. There is, in fact, a principle here: it’s not that government shouldn’t provide benefits, it’s that they should go only to the deserving. “I earned it,” many Tea Partiers told the authors in so many words.
The implication, of course, is that there are people out there who haven’t. The freeloader looms large in the Tea Partiers’ nightmares. “I would prefer that the moocher class not live off my hard work,” said one. Indeed, one of the revelations of Skocpol and Williamson’s interviews is that the specter of welfare continues to spook many conservatives. The anti-moocher strain assumes an uglier cast when you consider what the villains look like in Tea Party cosmology. As the authors note, “Compared to other Americans, including other conservatives, Tea Party participants more readily subscribe to harsh generalizations about immigrants and blacks.” Other targets include the young, Muslims, and the poor—the parts of America that don’t look like the Tea Party.
But some Americans have always privately held such resentments. The question is how dormant sentiment gets mobilized. Skocpol and Williamson examine the crucial role played by media and conservative elites. Lest we forget, the catalyzing event for the Tea Party happened on television. CNBC’s Rick Santelli, reporting from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, called for a “Chicago Tea Party” for the nation’s capitalists to protest the government subsidizing “the losers’ mortgages” (those “moochers” again).
From there, the right-wing echo chamber picked up the thread. Talk radio and the blogosphere promoted the Tea Party idea; Fox News essentially midwifed the movement, relentlessly “covering” the rallies. A private resentment shared with friends is one thing. Amplified on national television, it becomes something else—perhaps an ethos. Tea Parties sprouted across the landscape in those early months, but it was Fox News that allowed those disparate groups to think of themselves as a nation.
No less important were the right-wing advocacy groups that jumped to exploit the ferment. Two of the biggest, FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, trace their roots to those libertarian bogeymen, David and Charles Koch. The groups have been around for years, albeit with limited impact. As New York Times reporter Kate Zernike wrote in Boiling Mad, FreedomWorks had actually tried to use the Boston Tea Party as a metaphor for right-wing populist agitation way back in 2002. But it had to wait for the eruption of grassroots frustration for the idea to finally take hold.
As Skocpol and Williamson report, Washington elites may not have started the Tea Party, but they have played a crucial role in keeping it going. While there have been occasional tensions between local leaders and the national apparatus, the relationship between the two is symbiotic: national groups provide resources and information, while local Tea Parties give right-wing think tanks the ground game they’ve always lacked.
That said, the future of that relationship faces serious questions. Having rallied their side to the polls during the midterms, the Tea Party has become a potential liability for the GOP as the general election approaches—an election that will feature a younger, browner, and more moderate electorate. The maximalist agenda that Tea Partiers demanded from their representatives have helped bring congressional approval ratings to an all-time low. And the Tea Party brand itself is suffering. As Robert Putnam and David Campbell wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed, the Tea Party has become widely disliked—so much so that in surveys rating different groups in America, the Tea Party ranked even lower than atheists.
For all of Skocpol and Williamson’s claims that the Tea Party is merely “the latest iteration of long-standing, hard-core conservatism in American politics,” the context in which it mushroomed gives the phenomenon a frisson of the new. Tending toward the apocalyptic, the Tea Party mindset saw in Barack Obama’s election something more than a Democrat taking the presidency—it was a symbol for an America that was becoming unrecognizable to them.