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Oct 09 2013

Why the Tea Party Won’t Compromise

Ezra Klein has an interview with Christopher Parker, a political scientist and the author of a new book called Change They Cant Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America. Parker says what I’ve been saying for a long time, that the Tea Party is the modern John Birch Society that fits perfectly into the paranoid style of politics that Richard Hofstadter accurately identified 50 years ago:

So I run a survey research lab at the University of Washington. In 2010, I began to see these opposing views on the tea party. You had Peggy Noonan and Juan Williams basically saying, the tea partiers are just angry Republicans, no big deal. Then I read Frank Rich, and he says no, these people are completely different. He says they’re more in line with Richard Hofstadter’s “Paranoid Style of American Politics.” And I thought, I can get real data on this! And when I looked at it empirically, I found that people who supported the tea party tended to be more racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and anti-Obama…

There’s just this empirical connection between support for the tea party and antagonistic views toward quote-unquote marginalized groups, or, if you prefer, toward quote-unquote not real Americans…

Look at who rose during this period. It’s not all about Obama. Nancy Pelosi was the first female speaker of the House. Barney Frank wielded real power. Two women, one of whom was a Latina, went to the Supreme Court. Undocumented workers have gotten a ton of attention. There’s been the rise of same-sex rights.

That’s the crux of the book. The title is ‘Change They Can’t Believe In’. This isn’t new. Whenever there’s rapid social change it triggers this kind reactionary conservatism. People see their social prestige threatened, their way of life threatened. And they react.

This is all very true, of course. We’ve seen this pattern time and time again. What Parker did was look at surveys of Tea Party supporters and also at the content of Tea Party websites compared to the content of the National Review, which represents mainstream conservatism. And he found that the content is very different:

We also have a content analysis where we look at the content of 42 tea party Web sites in 15 states, and we compare it with the content of the National Review Online. And it couldn’t be more different. If you look at core postwar conservative principles, it tends to be around the size of government, then you also have national security conservative and social conservatives. And that can be an uneasy fit between the limited government and social conservative types. What brings them together is the threat of communism.

So if you look at this postwar discourse in the National Review Online you have some content about limited government, some about social conservatism, and some about national security. That content accounts for 76 percent of that National Review online. Now if you look at the Tea Party Web sites, that only accounts for 30 percent. Then there’s this conspiratorial discourse Hofstadter talks about that says government is really trying to bring about socialism, etc. That’s only about five percent of what you find at the National Review. On tea party Web sites it’s about a third.

So it’s not just that we’re seeing results like 76 percent of tea partiers want to see Obama fail. We also ask if people think Obama is destroying the country. We asked this question of all self-identified conservatives. If you look at all conservatives, 35 percent believe that. If you look at tea party conservatives and non-tea party conservatives, only six percent of non-tea party conservatives believe that vs. 71 percent of tea party conservatives.

I think Parker is right to identify two very different strains of conservative thought, or perhaps we should say between conservative thought and reactionary thought. It’s not a coincidence that the National Review was founded by William F. Buckley, the man who got the John Birch Society essentially thrown out of the conservative movement in the 1960s. The Tea Party represents the same thing the JBS represented, which is a far right, reactionary agenda that is fueled by massive paranoia and demonization of their opponents. And that is why they refuse to compromise:

They refuse to compromise because, to them, compromise is capitulation. If you go back to Hofstadter’s work when he’s talking about when the John Birch Society rode high, he talks about how conservatives would see people who disagree as political opponents, but reactionary conservatives saw them as evil. You can’t capitulate to evil.

Exactly right. And right wing talk radio and blogs have helped bring reactionary conservatism back into prominence. Mainstream conservatives find themselves playing defense and being derided as “Washington elites” or even as enemies within, just like liberals.

18 comments

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  1. 1
    EricJohansson

    I’m not so sure how strongly distinct the two strains really are, although there are of course differences. I just finished reading Corey Robin’s excellent “The Reactionary Mind : Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin” where he makes a good case that conservatism is at its core reactionary. According to this thesis conservatism for the most part an ongoing reaction to the French Revolution and the liberal egalitarianism of the Enlightenment. You might also call it a counter-revolutionary ideology.

    I also recommend Darin McMahon’s “Enemies of the Enlightenment.” I think you would be amazed how similar the statements of 18th century critics of the Enlightenment were to modern right-wing screeds against liberalism. The character names have changed, but the script is the same.

    And btw Robin’s book has the best take-down of Ayn Rand and Objectivism I’ve ever seen in print. A must read.

  2. 2
    robert grumbine

    There is perhaps a good reason for the similarity between the Birchers and the Partiers: They were founded by the same family.

    Fred Koch was one of the founders of the John Birch Society.

    His sons, David and Charles, have been major founders and funders of Tea Party groups (ex: Americans for Prosperity, which they denied connection to initially).

  3. 3
    colnago80

    Re Eric J.

    I seem to recall that Michael Heath considers himself a Burkian. However I may be confusing him with Andrew Sullivan in this regard. If so, I apologize for misrepresenting his views.

  4. 4
    typecaster

    Robert @2 – I think we need to keep the distinction between the Koch brothers and Koch Industries clearly in mind. They aren’t the same thing. Recently, an employee of Koch Industries responsible for public relations said that Koch Industries wasn’t responsible for urging the shutdown on Republicans, and it’s entirely possible that this is correct. The Koch brothers, on the other hand, are very wealthy as individuals, and could easily take political actions as individuals that their companies have no part in. I’ve seen a lot of commentary that doesn’t make this distinction, and conflate the owning individuals with the owned corporations.

  5. 5
    Area Man

    We also have a content analysis where we look at the content of 42 tea party Web sites in 15 states, and we compare it with the content of the National Review Online. And it couldn’t be more different.
    [...]
    Then there’s this conspiratorial discourse Hofstadter talks about that says government is really trying to bring about socialism, etc. That’s only about five percent of what you find at the National Review. On tea party Web sites it’s about a third.

    Only five percent! That number could not possibly be more different than the thirty percent found at Tea Party sites! I mean, aside from zero percent, which is the amount of space that a sane and intelligent political movement would devote to stupid conspiracy theories, the National Review is practically the DLC for devoting only one-twentieth of its entire content to the idea that Obama is a commie-muslim bent on the destruction of America.

    If I didn’t know better, I’d say they just proved the hypothesis that Tea Partiers are just extra-extreme and nutty conservatives. The difference appears entirely quantitative. And that’s why the “normal” ones can’t reel them in or face them down — it’s a monster born of their own beliefs.

  6. 6
    John Pieret

    Where’s Bill Buckley when we really need him?

  7. 7
    Brony

    So they are unusually effective despite being 22 percent of the country because they refuse to compromise? The question is now what to do? Functionally and in terms of strategy.

    Is this a social showdown? It’s pretty basic psychology that if we give in to this behavior and do any more compromising, they will keep doing this. If it works they will do it. There needs to be a social response as solid as theirs and I hate to say it but a default may be inevitable. Get your simple and obvious evidence of fault prepared for the finger pointing and projection they WILL use when the the economic repercussions occur.

    If we want consistently funded government independent of fights about that government the Rs need to be shown that this will not work. Otherwise we wait until the elections cycles show them in a more delayed fashion because of the pain and suffering that will occur.

  8. 8
    freemage

    I think one key issue is that there’s no modern-day Buckley–no one to tell the Tea Party to fall in line or take a hike. The “establishment” GOP built a strategy out of motivating extremists and then getting them to vote disproportionately; the problem is, they underestimated the ability of those extremists to realize the GOP was shamming them*, and to then seize control of their primaries. Think about Boehner’s contention that no bill comes to a House vote unless it has majority GOP support. It becomes very obvious, then, that the inmates are running the asylum, because this logjam has happened precisely because a majority of the GOP legislators are Tea Party extremists.

    *: I think the crucial factor in the extremists realizing that they were being shammed was abortion. During the 90s, the GOP-controlled Congress passed the late-term abortion ban; the only thing that kept Clinton from signing it was a single phrase. (The GOP passed a version that made an exception for pregnancies that endangered “the life and physical health” of the mother, while Clinton wanted the exception to be for “life and health”. The pro-lifers were convinced that this would allow mental health-motivated abortions, and were against that utterly.)

    Now, pretty much that same Congressional make-up was in play after Gore lost to Bush. Yet suddenly, the GOP had a massive case of amnesia about the topic of abortion–despite suddenly having a president who would happily sign that bill.

    The implication was obvious even for a reactionary conservative–the entire late-term abortion thing was a scam, a fight that wasn’t meant to be won.

    And having realized this, they got pissed, and started trying to take over the party. And then, with Obama’s election, the establishment GOPers opted to let it happen.

  9. 9
    Michael Heath

    I am not a Burkean, nor is Andrew Sullivan, who is instead a disciple of Michael Oakeshott.

    I appreciate authentic Burkeans which is not an attribute of the modern-day GOP. But I’ve always wanted an engaged energetic government working to improve our outcomes. I most identify with the current president and Alexander Hamilton though I have my issues with both.

  10. 10
    Pierce R. Butler

    robert grumbine @ # 2: … David and Charles [Koch], have been major founders and funders of Tea Party groups…

    We now have a report that Charles Koch generously funded Holocaust denialism in the ’60s (i.e., a “youthful indiscretion”) – which cuts out the majority of degrees of separation between libertarians and reactionaries (now bridged by Ron Paul’s cabal).

  11. 11
    raven

    I think we need to keep the distinction between the Koch brothers and Koch Industries clearly in mind. They aren’t the same thing.

    I don’t quite see this.

    Koch Industries is a private company, owned and controlled by the Koch brothers. It’s a bit like saying I’m not responsible for what my car does. Besides which, the bank owns most of it anyway. If it gets in an accident, take it up with the Bank of America.

    You’ve got to remember who is talking here and why. It’s an employee of the Koch’s and they can and will lie in a heartbeat. If you are going to believe them, you probably think Fox News and Whirled News Daily actually report…news.

  12. 12
    conway

    Why does someone write quote-unquote not real Americans instead of writing “not real Americans?”

  13. 13
    exdrone

    [Hofstadter] talks about how conservatives would see people who disagree as political opponents, but reactionary conservatives saw them as evil

    If they disagree, they must be suppressive persons.

  14. 14
    Aaron

    John Pieret – probably still apologizing for McCarthy from the great beyond.

  15. 15
    carolineborduin

    Amanda Marcotte had a perfect description of the Tea Party: they would rather “burn this country to the ground than share it with everyone else.”

  16. 16
    eric

    @7:

    So they are unusually effective despite being 22 percent of the country because they refuse to compromise? The question is now what to do? Functionally and in terms of strategy.

    Vote. That’s what you do. In the locals, primaries, as well as the general presidential election. And get your moderate friends to vote too – even the moderate conservatives.

    Turnout is about 60% for Presidential election years, less for alternate years. Even ignoring gerrymandering, there is still enormous room for improvement in terms of electing representatives that better reflect the views of their district constituents. Groups like the Tea Party are politically powerful, in part, because they effectively overrepresent themselves at the polls. But this is not a character flaw on their part – the same could be said of AARP – its reflects a character flaw of the rest of us.

  17. 17
    Markita Lynda—threadrupt

    Right: that’s the same reason that farmers have a disproportionate political influence in Canada: they get out and vote and they vote for candidates who support farm subsidies as opposed to affordable food. Milk doesn’t have to be as expensive as Pepsi.

  18. 18
    Infophile

    @17: “As” expensive? Where are you shopping? At my grocery store, Pepsi runs ~$2 for a 2L bottle, and milk is ~$5 for a 2L carton.

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