Williamson, Skocpol, Coggin

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The Tea Party and the Remaking of
Republican Conservatism

Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin
In the aftermath of a potentially demoralizing 2008 electoral defeat, when the Republican Party seemed widely discredited, the
emergence of the Tea Party provided conservative activists with a new identity funded by Republican business elites and reinforced
by a network of conservative media sources. Untethered from recent GOP baggage and policy specifics, the Tea Party energized
disgruntled white middle-class conservatives and garnered widespread attention, despite stagnant or declining favorability ratings
among the general public. As participant observation and interviews with Massachusetts activists reveal, Tea Partiers are not mono-
lithically hostile toward government; they distinguish between programs perceived as going to hard-working contributors to US
society like themselves and "handouts" perceived as going to unworthy or freeloading people. During 2010, Tea Party activism
reshaped many GOP primaries and enhanced voter turnout, but achieved a mixed record in the November general election. Activ-
ism may well continue to influence dynamics in Congress and GOP presidential primaries. Even if the Tea Party eventually subsides,
it has undercut Obama's presidency, revitalized conservatism, and pulled the national Republican Party toward the far right.
On the evening of March 23, 2010, more than generally older, white middle-classTea Partiers; yet the
forty Tea Partiers filled to overflowing a room in a
assembled group also maintained a determined focus on
small cafe on Main Street in the gritty town of
local endeavors. Amidst talk of an upcoming Tax Day
Brockton, Massachusetts. It was only hours after Presi-
rally planned for the Boston Common, Tea Partiers dis-
dent Barack Obama had signed into law the Affordable
played sophisticated political awareness, sharing tips on
Care and Patient Protection Act. This blueprint for com-
how to build a contact list for registered Republicans in
prehensive health insurance reform had been fiercely
each district, and brainstorming about how to convince
opposed by Tea Partiers across the nation--and not least
Tea Party members to run in neglected legislative races.
in Massachusetts, where grassroots conservative enthusi-
Just as Tea Partiers in the Bay State had mobilized to elect
asm had been one of the key ingredients in the victory of
Scott Brown, months later they still felt themselves ener-
Republican Scott Brown in the January 19 special election
gized and on the offensive for the rest of 2010.
to fill the seat of the late Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy.
By all rights, the Massachusetts Tea Party supporters
assembled in Brockton that March evening should have
The Tea Party Emerges
been demoralized. But their enthusiasm seemed undamp-
Only fifteen months before that gathering in Brockton,
ened. Health reform needed to be repealed, agreed these
the national ideological tide seemed to be running against
Vanessa Williamson is a doctoral student in Government
Origins of Social Policy in the United States, 1992). Her
and Social Policy at Harvard University (vwilliam@fas.
most recent book is: The Transformation of American Poli-
harvard.edu). Her research interests include the political
tics: Activist Government and the Rise of Conservatism
support for, and effects of, taxation and entitlement pro-
(2007, with Paul Pierson). John Coggin is a second-year
grams. Before coming to Harvard, she served at the Policy
Master's student in Religion, Ethics, and Politics and Har-
Director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
vard Divinity School ([email protected]). His
Theda Skocpol is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Govern-
research interests include participation of conservative
ment and Sociology at Harvard University and is a former
Evangelicals in recent US politics and public attitudes
President of the American Political Science Association
towards Muslims in the United States post-9/11. The au-
([email protected]). Her work covers an unusually
thors are grateful to Robert Putnam, Zaid Munson, Peter
broad spectrum of topics including both comparative poli-
Dreier, and Peter Hall for their comments on an earlier
tics (States and Social Revolutions, 1979) and American
version of this article. Anonymous reviewers for this article
politics (Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political
also provided very valuable feedback and advice.
March 2011 | Vol. 9/No. 1 25

Articles | The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism
conservatism. Not only did the November 2008 elections
The Explanatory Challenge
mark the triumph of an African-American Democratic
How did the Tea Party revitalize right-wing activism in
presidential candidate proposing an ambitious and pro-
the lead-up to the 2010 midterm elections, and what can
gressive agenda, voters also sent formidable Democratic
this tell us about the trajectory of US conservatism? To
majorities to the House and Senate. Outgoing President
date, these questions have been left largely unanswered. In
George W. Bush was extremely unpopular, and the failed
its early stages, the Tea Party was widely mischaracterized
McCain campaign left Republicans without a clear leader.1
as a populist revolt or a movement of political indepen-
High-ranking Republicans were far from united behind
dents. In April 2010, more than a year after the Tea Party's
the new Republican Party chair, Michael Steele.2 Pundits
emergence on the national stage, the St. Petersburg Times
debated whether the Republican Party might be in long-
described Tea Party members as "largely Ross Perot-style
term decline.3
libertarians," while the LA Times reported that "Tea Party
To be sure, rank-and-file Republicans remained strongly
members are average Americans, 41 percent are Demo-
opposed to the new president and his policy initiatives.4
crats, independents."6 Over time, media reporting on the
Hostility to the Obama economic agenda was already evi-
basic demographics and political leanings of Tea Partiers
dent in the first weeks of the new administration. In con-
became more accurate and detailed. And scholars have
servative circles, the phrase "Porkulus" quickly became
started debating the historical resonances of Tea Party ideas.7
the derisive shorthand for the American Recovery and
But there has been little in-depth social science scholar-
Reinvestment Act, commonly known as the Stimulus. But
ship on the development and organizational characteris-
how could any effective counter-movement crystallize with
tics of Tea Party activism; little probing of the nuanced
the Republican Party in such disarray and disfavor?
beliefs of members and supporters; and little consider-
In mid-February, an opportunity presented itself. From
ation of the possible political effects of this new variant of
the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, CNBC
right-wing activism. By offering an empirical analysis rather
reporter Rick Santelli burst into a tirade against the Obama
than normative commentary, our article aims to help fill
Administration's nascent mortgage plan: "The govern-
this void.
ment is rewarding bad behavior!" Santelli shouted. To pro-
test giving public help to "subsidize the losers' mortgages,"
Our Argument
Santelli invited America's "capitalists" to a "Chicago Tea
We find that the Tea Party is a new incarnation of long-
Party." Across the country, web-savvy conservative activ-
standing strands in US conservatism. The anger of grass-
ists recognized rhetorical gold when they saw it. Operat-
roots Tea Partiers about new federal social programs such
ing at first through the social-networking site Twitter,
as the Affordable Care Act coexists with considerable accep-
conservative bloggers and Republican campaign veterans
tance, even warmth, toward long-standing federal social
took the opportunity offered by the Santelli rant to plan
programs like Social Security and Medicare, to which Tea
protests under the newly minted "Tea Party" name.5 As
Partiers feel legitimately entitled. Opposition is concen-
seasoned activists organized local rallies, the video of San-
trated on resentment of perceived federal government
telli quickly scaled the media pyramid, headlining the pop-
"handouts" to "undeserving" groups, the definition of
ular conservative website, The Drudge Report; being widely
which seems heavily influenced by racial and ethnic ste-
re-televised; and receiving public comment within 24 hours
reotypes. More broadly, Tea Party concerns exist within
from White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs.
the context of anxieties about racial, ethnic, and genera-
Initial protests on February 27 drew small crowds in
tional changes in American society. Previous scholars,
dozens of cities across the country. In the weeks and months
including Martin Gilens, have noted connections between
that followed, larger events were held, featuring protesters
racial stereotyping and opposition to parts of US social
waving incendiary signs and dressed up like Revolutionary-
provision, particularly "welfare" for poor mothers.8 Addi-
era patriots. Conservative news outlets amplified the pub-
tionally, Theda Skocpol has written about generational
lic attention Tea Party groups were receiving, and other
fault-lines in the post-World War II history of US social
outlets were also transfixed by the spectacle. Local groups
policy.9 We explain how Tea Party reactions and attitudes
began holding events between protests, and national ral-
fit into this picture.
lies grew larger, peaking in April's Tax Day protests, and
Despite continuities with past conservative efforts, the
again in September, when tens of thousands of Tea Party
Tea Party has some innovative organizational features. A
protesters marched on Washington. By 2010, self-declared
small set of nationally operating Republican elites, many
Tea Party activists and supporters were exercising signifi-
of whom have been promoting a low-tax, anti-regulation
cant clout in dozens of electoral races nationwide--first in
agenda since the 1970s, have played a key role in local and
Republican primaries, and then in the general election
regional Tea Party efforts.10 These elites have long since
contests of November. These and other key milestones in
developed a policymaking infrastructure in Washington,
the evolution of the Tea Party are detailed in the timeline
but had previously achieved only limited success in directly
we offer in Appendix A.
connecting themselves to an activist grassroots base.11
Perspectives on Politics

Previous grassroots conservatives have been embedded in
allows us to probe for distinctive as well as nationally sim-
social networks linked to churches and devoted to an
ilar patterns. To situate Massachusetts Tea Partiers in rela-
agenda somewhat distinct from free-market absolutism.
tion to their counterparts from other regions, we compare
In this iteration of conservative mobilization, Republican
all our local findings to national representative surveys,
elites have been able to rely on powerful conservative media
and discuss what the similarities and differences tell us
sources, led by Fox News. As Kathleen Hall Jamieson and
about the Tea Party overall.
Joseph Cappella describe it, the right-wing media "echo
chamber" serves not only to mobilize conservatives, but to
Who Are the Tea Partiers?
define their insular community.12 We agree with their
Though the top-line results of some national surveys have
assessment but go a step farther, suggesting that the best
suggested otherwise, Tea Party participants are a small
way to understand Fox News' role is as a national advo-
minority of Americans. In many polls, more people say
cacy organization actively fostering a social protest iden-
they are unsure about or unfamiliar with the Tea Party
tity, along the lines previously studied by sociologist Debra
than say they support it. Seemingly minor differences in
Minkoff.13 Although Tea Party activists themselves are often
question wording have a significant impact on conclu-
socially conservative and may be conservative Christians,
sions about the breadth of Tea Party affiliation, and poll
the infrastructure of the Tea Party should be distinguished
questions asking broadly about "support" for the Tea Party
from the church-linked networks prominent in grassroots
vastly overestimate the phenomenon's reach.15 The CBS
conservative mobilizations of recent decades.
News/New York Times poll completed in April 2010--
one of the most comprehensive national polls to date on
Research Strategy
Tea Party activism--finds that only one in five of those
Our research probes the organizational characteristics of
who claimed to be Tea Party supporters had actually
Tea Party efforts within the overall US political system,
attended an event or donated money.16 Particularly given
and looks closely at the activities and views of grassroots
that people typically overstate their political activity, the
activists. We examine both macroscopic and micro trends,
number of people who have actually participated in Tea
synthesizing several sources of evidence--including data
Party events is likely smaller than even this measure sug-
from national surveys of the demographic and attitudinal
gests.17 As we discuss later, there are perhaps a few hun-
characteristics of Tea Party activists and sympathizers; pub-
dred active Tea Party groups nationally, and only a small
licly available data on national funding and advocacy orga-
fraction of those groups have memberships over five hun-
nizations; and information on activism and ideology from
dred people.
various local and regional Tea Party websites. We enrich
Despite showing varying measures of levels of support,
the nation-wide data with fieldwork observations and per-
nationwide surveys produce a consistent picture of Tea
sonal interviews conducted with the Greater Boston Tea
Party supporters, a depiction that jibes with firsthand
Party by two of the authors during the first half of 2010,
accounts of meetings and protests.18 Older, white, and
plus an e-mail questionnaire distributed to Massachusetts
middle class is the typical profile of a Tea Party partici-
activists.14 All participants in the questionnaire and inter-
pant. Between 55 and 60 percent of supporters are men;
views volunteered their responses to researchers who clearly
80-90 percent are white; and 70-75 percent are over 45
explained their scholarly purposes. Talking with actual Tea
years old. Given the disproportionate number of older
Party participants helps us to learn more about how peo-
white males, it is little surprise that Tea Party supporters
ple create and sustain Tea Party efforts regionally, and how
are usually found to have somewhat higher incomes than
grassroots undertakings relate to the Republican Party and
typical Americans.
to national organizations claiming to further Tea Party
Attitudes and political loyalties are more important than
efforts. Interviews and ethnographic observations are also
simple demography. The vast majority of Tea Party par-
crucial for understanding what people's survey responses
ticipants are conservative Republicans, many of whom
really mean, moving beyond crude characterizations of
have been politically active in the past. A few polls have
Tea Partiers as "angry," "anti-government," or "racist."
suggested that the Tea Party draws heavily from indepen-
To be sure, the collection of ethnographic data in Mas-
dent voters, but those studies neglected to add the stan-
sachusetts was a matter of reaching out to people and
dard follow-up question about whether respondents lean
observing events happening close to the researchers' home
towards one party or another.19 "Leaners" typically behave
base. Quick, repeated access was important if we were to
like party faithful, so polls omitting this question are likely
learn about early Tea Party mobilization in real time. Mas-
overstating their respondents' party independence.20 Polls
sachusetts Tea Party efforts achieved an early national
conducted by Quinnipiac and Greenberg Quinlan Ros-
impact through the surprise victory of Scott Brown in
ner, among a few others, include the relevant follow-up
that state's special Senate election of January 2010. What
question, and find that three quarters or more of Tea Party
is more, examination of the ideas and modus operandi of
supporters are Republicans or lean Republican.21 Tea Par-
conservative activists operating in an unusually liberal state
tiers do not see themselves as moderates, either. In June
March 2011 | Vol. 9/No. 1 27

Articles | The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism
2010, Gallup found that 62 percent of Tea Partiers deemed
sight and regulation and shrinking or radically restructur-
themselves to be conservative Republicans.22 Moreover,
ing broad social entitlements in the United States.
many Tea Partiers have been active in politics in the past.
Two advocacy organizations are most closely associated
The CBS News/New York Times survey found that 43
with the Tea Party name: the Tea Party Express and Tea
percent of Tea Party supporters nationwide claimed pre-
Party Patriots.25 The Tea Party Express (TPE) is a project
viously to have worked actively for a candidate or given
of the Republican-run political action committee "Our
money in a campaign. While some may be new to polit-
Country Deserves Better," which has provided hundreds
ical activism, seasoned hands seem to be more common in
of thousands of dollars in support to conservative candi-
Tea Party ranks than in the US citizenry as a whole.23
dates like Senator Scott Brown in Massachusetts and Shar-
ron Angle in Nevada. The TPE also channeled big money
How Is the Nationwide Tea Party
into Republican primaries.26 Beyond these electoral activ-
ities, the TPE has sponsored bus tours that travel the coun-
Though their ranks are predominantly made up of com-
try and coincide with other Tea Party events. Tea Party
mitted conservatives, theTea Parties are not operating under
Patriots (TPP), whose website was up and running within
the guidance of official GOP institutions. The Republican
days of the original Santelli rant, has been more closely
National Committee is not in charge, and neither are state
associated with grassroots activism than TPE. Many Tea
party organs. Instead, a mix of local networks, resource-
Party groups have registered on the TPP website, and,
deploying national organizations, and conservative media
according to TPP national coordinator Jenny Beth Mar-
outlets constitute Tea Partyism and give it a great deal of
tin, the organization employs nine national coordinators
dynamism and flexibility at a pivotal juncture in US politics.
to help guide and coordinate these local groups' actions.27
TPP rhetoric and the group's homespun website gives
the impression of an entirely grassroots, volunteer-run orga-
Grassroots Networks
nization. Jenny Beth Martin derides the Tea Party Express
At the grassroots level, Tea Parties are small, loosely inter-
as "five people on a bus," and her TPP dubs itself the
related networks, assembled at the initiative of local and
"official grassroots American movement." As of October
regional organizers, who often use online organizing tools.
2010, the Tea Party Patriots website offered the visitor no
The website MeetUp, which helps people with given inter-
information regarding their national leadership and no
ests identify one another and arrange face-to-face meet-
listing of the Board of Directors or staff.
ings, has been very widely used by Tea Partiers and can give
Nonetheless, TPP is very closely intertwined with
us some sense of the phenomenon's breadth and depth. As
FreedomWorks, a multimillion-dollar conservative non-
of July 2010, sixteen Tea Party groups listed on MeetUp
profit led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey
had more than 500 members; seven of these groups were in
(R-TX). Tea Party Patriots operates under the motto "Fis-
Florida and four were in Texas. About 250 other Tea Party
cal Responsibility, Limited Government, Free Market,"
MeetUp groups had more than 100 members, and there
similar to the FreedomWorks slogan of "Lower Taxes, Less
were several hundred other, smaller Tea Party groups. On a
Government, More Freedom." As Jenny Beth Martin
typical day, MeetUp lists about twenty Tea Party events
acknowledges, FreedomWorks was crucial to the group's
nationwide--including rallies, seminars, candidate fund-
original launch and was a primary funder for their national
raisers, and casual events such as barbeques or book club
rallies. Martin also reports that operational funding for
meetings. These results from MeetUp are in keeping with
Tea Party Patriots was scant well into 2010, limiting the
an October 2010 Washington Post investigation, which found
capacity of the group to take independent action.28 Leaked
a total of about 650 Tea Parties, many of which were not
emails have suggested that, at least in early months,
very active.24 Thus the grassroots Tea Party phenomenon is
FreedomWorks retained control over significant aspects of
real, but perhaps smaller than the level of media attention
TPP messaging.29
might lead one to believe. To understand how these small
Tea Party Express, Tea Party Patriots, and Freedom-
groups have made such a large impact on the political scene,
Works are not the only Tea Party-linked conservative
we must understand the network of well-funded national
groups, however. Other national advocacy organizations
advocacy organizations promoting the Tea Party brand.
fishing in these waters include Americans for Prosperity,
an advocacy group that, like FreedomWorks, is a spin-off
National Advocates and Funders
of the 1980s free-market industry-funded think tank Cit-
At the national level there is no unified, official Tea Party
izens for a Sound Economy; Newt Gingrich's American
organization, but many would-be leaders and organiza-
Solutions for Winning the Future; and the American Lib-
tions have tried to stoke and capitalize on Tea Party fervor.
erty Alliance, an organization run by the conservative cam-
National orchestrators draw their resources from a small
paign veteran Eric Odom. Several of these organizations,
number of very conservative business elites, whose policy
along with right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foun-
concerns primarily involve reducing government over-
dation and the Cato Institute, have been bankrolled by a
Perspectives on Politics

small number of far-right businessmen, most notably the
Figure 1
libertarian Koch brothers, sons of Fred Koch, a founding
Week-by-week coverage of the Tea Party on
member of the John Birch Society.30 Thus the national
Fox News and CNN, February 15 through
organizations promoting the Tea Party are most closely
May 24, 2009
tied to pro-business conservatism, rather than church-
linked social conservatism.
It is not clear how much grassroots Tea Partiers know
about the national advocacy and funding organizations
promoting and trying to capitalize on their efforts. Most
Tea Party activists we interviewed knew little or nothing
about FreedomWorks or the other national free-market
organizations promoting the Tea Party brand. Nationally,
at least some local Tea Party groups have sought to dis-
tance themselves from FreedomWorks.31 Though these
pro-business elites have been crucial to the funding of the
Tea Party phenomenon at the national level, they do not
seem to be central to the identity-building and mobiliza-
tion of Tea Partiers at the local level.
Links between national advocacy organizations and local
Tea Parties do not seem terribly strong, and are certainly
not formal or simply hierarchical. But the phenomenon as
a whole benefits strategically from the looseness of these
the first place. Consider figure 1, which juxtaposes trends
ties. Because there is no one center or obvious source of
in Tea Party coverage by Fox News and CNN over the first
authority and resources, the fate of Tea Party enthusiasm
months of the Tea Party phenomenon.33 CNN's coverage
is not inextricably linked to the political fortunes of any
spikes at the major national event in April 2009, and drops
one candidate or entity. Grassroots engagement is not
to near zero before and after this event. In telling contrast,
undercut when particular candidates are defeated or par-
Fox News shows significant and growing coverage in the
ticular organizations are discredited. For instance, when
lead-up to the April rallies. And although coverage declines
Mark Williams, a leader of the Tea Party Express, was
somewhat after the highly visible events of April 15, the
forced out of the organization for racist comments he
Tea Party remains a significant presence on Fox News even
posted on his blog, a Houston Texas Tea Party group
in periods where actual political happenings are not occur-
responded with a blog post entitled "Who Is Mark Wil-
ring. In the phenomenon's infancy, the Tea Party idea is
liams?", which declared that Williams was perhaps a left-
kept steadily available to Fox viewers.
wing plant intended to make the Tea Party appear racist.
Figure 2 documents a similar pattern in the weeks before
Other groups ignored the controversy entirely. But with
the July 4 protests and before the Tea Party involvement
only weak ties binding local groups to national advocates,
in Congressional town halls during August 2009 (though
we must look elsewhere to find the Tea Party's identity-
both of these events received a far lower level of coverage
building and mobilization mechanisms.
than the April 15 rallies). CNN's coverage is largely reac-
tive, but Fox coverage anticipates Tea Party events in the
Conservative Media Inspire a Shared Identity
early months of the Tea Party's activity, and maintains
The conservative media have played a crucial role in forg-
coverage between peak events.
ing the shared beliefs and the collective identity around
It may be, moreover, that CNN's level of coverage is
which Tea Partiers have united. This community-building
itself an effect of Fox News coverage. Many scholars have
effort has been lead by Fox News, with a strong assist from
identified ways in which conservative media influence the
talk radio and the conservative blogosphere. Fox is the
coverage provided by more mainstream outlets.34 Thus
primary source of political information for Tea Party activ-
the anticipatory coverage on Fox may also be driving up
ists. According to the CBS/New York Times national poll,
the large spikes in coverage received by the Tea Party on
63 percent of Tea Party supporters watch Fox News, com-
channels like CNN.
pared to 11 percent of all respondents. Only 11 percent of
It is not only in the quantity of Fox News coverage that
Tea Party supporters report getting their news from one of
we can see the media organization's role as an organizer of
the Big Three networks, while among all US respondents,
this community, because the quality of coverage the Tea
more than a quarter reported watching network news.32
Party has received on Fox is fundamentally different from
Fox is more than a source of information, however.
the coverage on other major networks. Fox News has explic-
This key outlet, echoed by other conservative outlets,
itly mobilized its viewers by connecting the Tea Party to
helped to create and sustain the Tea Party mobilization in
their own brand identity. In early 2009, Fox News dubbed
March 2011 | Vol. 9/No. 1 29

Articles | The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism
Figure 2
for the leading voices, articulating a sense of pride and
Week-by-week coverage of the Tea Party on
power among conservatives discouraged after November
Fox News and CNN, May 31 through August
2008, and spreading information about how people could
2, 2009
get involved in national occasions to display solidarity
and collective voice. All of these are invaluable aids to
collective action among dispersed, not previously inter-
connected people.
With the assistance of the conservative media's social
coordination of willing local activists and participants, the
anti-regulation big-business lobby could harness new grass-
roots networks to accompany their already powerful DC
presence. By mid-2010, the Tea Party--though never more
than a small minority of all Americans--could mount
spectacular regional and national protests and attract the
attention of mainstream media and the political class in
Washington. It was also poised to intervene dramatically
in many GOP primaries. To see how this political impact
could be effected, we must look at the ground-level inter-
actions between these national forces, and at the ideolog-
ical underpinnings that inspire Tea Party activism.
the upcoming Tea Party events as "FNC [Fox News Chan-
nel] Tea Parties."35 Fox hosts Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity,
The Greater Boston Tea Party
Greta Van Susteren, and Neil Cavuto have broadcasted
To examine Tea Party institutions and ideology in greater
their shows from Tea Party events. The largest Tea Party
depth, the development of the Greater Boston Tea Party
event to date, the September 12, 2009 rally in Washing-
provides an illuminating case study that reveals the crucial
ton, was cosponsored by Glenn Beck's "912 Project." At
roles of seasoned local activists, conservative media, and
least 115 Tea Parties registered on the Tea Party Patriots
national funders in the rise of local activism. Our inter-
website have a name including some variation of 9/12,
views and fieldwork with Massachusetts activists also shed
such as the "Wyoming 912 Coalition" or "Daytona 912."
light on the ideological motivations that stirred campaign-
In summer 2010, FreedomWorks, the organization behind
ers to action.
Tea Party Patriots, ran a membership drive featuring a
picture of Glenn Beck and a "special offer for Glenn Beck
How Distinctive Are Massachusetts Activists?
listeners," a partnership formalizing long-time ties between
Before delving into our analysis of Tea Party efforts in the
the pro-business lobby and the conservative media's grass-
Bay State, it is important to identify the ways in which the
roots mobilization efforts. Overall, it is hard to avoid the
Greater Boston Tea Party (GBTP) resembles and differs
conclusion that Fox News provides much of what the
from kindred groups elsewhere. Given the unusually lib-
loosely interconnected Tea Party organizations otherwise
eral environment in which the eastern Massachusetts Tea
lack in terms of a unified membership and communica-
Partiers are operating, we expected to find significant dif-
tions infrastructure.
ferences between the GBTP and other Tea Party people
A number of scholars have identified ways in which
across the nation.
Fox News and other conservative media outlets have
To help place the Greater Boston Tea Party in context,
reshaped mainstream public debate and helped echo and
we sent out an email survey to the group's email list. In
strengthen conservative viewpoints.36 We would go a step
response to the broadcast e-mail, 89 people responded to
further. Rather than serving a journalistic, or even a pro-
the questions listed in Appendix B at the end of this arti-
pagandistic function, Fox News in effect acts as a "national
cle. In the summary statistics below, we include only the
social movement organization," as described by sociolo-
79 respondents who had participated in at least one Tea
gist Debra Minkoff in studies of liberal identity move-
Party event. We also conducted follow-up phone inter-
ments. For a scattered set of people who might feel isolated
views with 12 of the 89 respondents. Though the volun-
or marginalized (like gays and lesbians, in Minkoff's orig-
teered responses are not necessarily representative even for
inal example), a resourceful national organization can
the Tea Party in Massachusetts, they jibed with our first-
help to provide "an infrastructure for collective action"
hand experience at Tea Party meetings and are largely con-
by promoting "the diffusion of collective identities" and
sistent with those found for Tea Party supporters in national
fostering "at least a minimal degree of solidarity and inte-
gration."37 Fox News did these things for the Tea Party
Like their fellow Tea Partiers across the United States,
undertaking, promoting the label and providing a venue
those in Massachusetts are older, white, and predominately
Perspectives on Politics

male: 97 percent are white; 57 percent are males; and 83
network of Tea Partiers relies heavily on a small group of
percent are over forty-six years old (with more than half
committed conservative activists, though some members
older than age fifty-six). In addition, Bay State Tea Party
are wary of Republican institutions and candidates.
activists envelop themselves with the same conservative
In Massachusetts, 39-year-old Christen Varley, the
news sources used by other Tea Party participants. When
president of the Greater Boston Tea Party, was the critical
we asked Massachusetts Tea Party activists an open-ended
founding Tea Partier. Varley currently works for a social-
question about their preferred news sources, 51 out of 69
conservative organization, Coalition for Marriage and Fam-
respondents to this question reported being Fox News
ily, has blogged under the name "GOPMom," and is the
watchers. As has also been found in national studies, few
chair of her town's Republican Party committee. Working
Massachusetts Tea Partiers are seeking out neutral or left-
with a small group of fellow conservatives starting early in
leaning sources of information. Only 11 respondents claim
2009, Varley writes e-mail alerts, convenes protests, and
to read the Boston Globe, and only 7 Massachusetts Tea
speaks on behalf of the group to local media. Although a
Party activists report getting their news from ABC, NBC
handful of other members take some roles in event plan-
or CBS News. Like Tea Partiers nationally, many in Mas-
ning, Christen Varley remains by far the most visible source
sachusetts are campaign veterans. In our Boston sample,
of organizing power. In interviews, many Boston Tea Party
37 out of 79 respondents claimed to have previously vol-
members considered Varley to be their primary or sole tie
unteered on behalf of a candidate or political organization.
to the organization. At the meetings we observed, most
Attitudinally, Massachusetts Tea Partiers are also simi-
attendees reported that they did not know any other attend-
lar to their fellow Tea Party activists in other states. In
ees well--or indeed at all. One interviewee, Janet, says the
Massachusetts, as in the nation as a whole, the primary
Tea Party includes "lots of friendly people," but no one she
concern is the size of the government, and particularly the
would describe as a close friend. Another described fellow
amount of government spending.38 Nearly nine in ten
Tea Partiers as "acquaintances with the same goals." Although
Greater Boston Tea Partiers rated "Deficits and Spending"
the group has been meeting regularly for over a year, the
a very important issue for the group to address. Our results
GBTP does not seem, so far, to be building social capital as
also confirm a widely-reported difference between Tea Par-
understood by Robert Putnam.42 The tenacity and com-
tiers and previous generations of conservative activists: most
mitment of the experienced central organizer and her chief
Tea Party members do not see social issues like abortion or
lieutenants remain crucial to the group's continued activity.
gay marriage as central to their current political activism.
In addition to the hard work of the lead organizers, the
In our local survey, when we asked respondents to rate the
Greater Boston Tea Party is united by reliance on shared
importance of a range of issues, abortion ranked at the
sources of political information. At Tea Party meetings,
bottom.39 Nationally, 78% of Tea Partiers think eco-
Fox News stories are a common currency; activists share
nomic issues should take precedence over social issues.40
stories reported on the network and quote the opinions of
Though they are currently focused on economic con-
Fox News commentators. Fox News personality Glenn
cerns, the Tea Partiers we met were quick to define them-
Beck is an especially frequent source of political opinion
selves as "socially conservative," a trait they share with Tea
and historical perspective. According to interviewee Kris-
Partiers in other states.41
lyn, "We're history buffs . . . and [thanks to Beck] our
In sum, Tea Party participants in Boston are more sim-
knowledge has gone through the roof. A lot of people
ilar to the national Tea Party than we originally expected--a
dismiss him as a kook, but I think he challenges you to
fact that reinforces our argument about the role of national
question the status quo." In addition to Fox News pro-
media in fostering shared identity and attitudes. As we
grams, most other sources of political information cited
discuss the Greater Boston case in more detail, however,
by Tea Party activists are conservative. After Fox News,
we will identify ways in which Massachusetts activists might
conservative radio programs (such as Rush Limbaugh and
be distinctive in their emphases and rhetoric.
Laura Ingraham), and conservative websites (such as The
Drudge Report and Red State) topped the list of Tea Party
The Greater Boston Tea Party in Action
news sources. Several Boston-area Tea Party participants
The formation of Tea Party efforts in Massachusetts, most
said that it was through watching Glenn Beck's show that
of which are concentrated in the eastern half of the state,
they found out about the Tea Party in the first place.
provides a window into how various forces --local activ-
Despite the efforts of local activists, nascent Tea Party
ists, the conservative media, and national organizations
mobilization in Massachusetts began to wane in the fall of
funded by business elites--interacted to create local and
2009, as national media attention declined after the wide-
regional political mobilization. It was the involvement of
spread attention to the August town halls and the Septem-
national media and organizations that brought a small
ber 12 rally in Washington, DC. The Greater Boston Tea
group of Massachusetts conservatives together, raised their
Party had made some efforts to organize itself more for-
work to national prominence, and helped convert their
mally, creating a Board of Directors and holding organi-
mobilization into electoral success. The local grassroots
zational meetings. According to one early activist, Elizabeth,
March 2011 | Vol. 9/No. 1 31

Articles | The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism
these early organizing meetings were well attended; "There
Varley regularly prefaced comments about the upcoming
were a hundred of us, and then we split into groups, and
Tea Party Express rally with the phrase, "Sarah Palin, love
we decided who would set up the computer thing, who
her or hate her."
would handle recruiting, who would be organizing pro-
In the Boston example, we see that local organizers play
tests." But that early initiative did not yield immediate
a crucial role in building and sustaining Tea Party activism
results, according to Elizabeth: "After that we haven't had
between national events. But they still owe a considerable
any formal meetings. It sort of dissolved." Judging from
amount of their success to the involvement of national
the group's online calendar of events, meetings in late fall
conservative media and advocacy organizations.
2009 were relatively few and far between.
At the moment when the GBTP's momentum seemed
A Closer Look at Tea Party Ideology
to have stalled, the group benefited from the fortuitous
To learn more about what motivates local Tea Partiers to
timing of the Massachusetts special US Senate election,
action, we supplement our structural and institutional find-
which brought national organizing power to the local
ings with an analysis of the ideological underpinnings of
Tea Party. State Senator Scott Brown drew the support of
the Tea Party phenomenon, using the results of our field-
the national Tea Party Express, which spent almost
work and long-form interviews. Specifically, we can learn
$350,000 in support of his campaign, and simulta-
what hostility toward "big government" consists of--and
neously aroused local activists. The local Tea Party hosted
what it does not include. There can be little doubt that Tea
a question-and-answer session at a local hotel conference
Partiers in general, including those in Massachusetts, resent
room with then-candidate Brown in early January 2010.
taxes and government regulation of business. But when it
Successful mobilization in a relatively low-turnout elec-
comes to federal social programs and spending, the nuances
tion gave Scott Brown the victory and the local Tea Party
of Tea Party views are more complex than meets the eye in
a shot in the arm. "Thank God he won," Varley says of
top-line national survey results. Our findings help us sit-
Brown, "or I'm not sure we'd still be operational." Today,
uate the Tea Party in the history of American conservatism.
the Greater Boston Tea Party is a relatively large Tea
Party group. As measured by MeetUp membership, only
32 Tea Parties nationwide have a larger online community.
Work and Deservingness
Since the jumpstart provided by the special election,
Commentators have sometimes noted the irony that these
the Boston group has benefited from links to multiple
same Tea Partiers who oppose "government spending"
national organizations, and these loose ties have been very
are themselves recipients of Social Security, Medicare, or
effective. Boston activists have worked with the Tea Party
disability payments. Don't they know these are "big gov-
Express, which brought its road show to the Boston Com-
ernment" programs? Rather than assume ignorance, we
mon for their 2010 Tax Day protest. The appearance of
should recognize that what appear to be contradictory or
Sarah Palin helped bring dozens of news media outlets to
uninformed views of federal government programs make
the event, despite the relatively small crowd of perhaps
better sense once we understand how Tea Party activists
5,000 people.43 The Greater Boston Tea Party also has ties
view themselves in relation to other groups in society.
to other organizations funded by anti-regulation business
Tea Party activists in Massachusetts, as well as nationally,
elites. At several Boston meetings, Tea Party regulars encour-
define themselves as workers, in opposition to categories
aged newer members to participate in trainings held by
of non-workers they perceive as undeserving of govern-
the Koch-funded organization, American Majority, and
ment assistance. Concerns about freeloading underlie Tea
discussed bringing experts from the Heritage Foundation
Party opposition to government spending.
or the Cato Institute to speak to their group.44 The Greater
The "revolutionary" rhetoric of the Tea Party has led
Boston Tea Party is also registered on the Tea Party Patri-
some commentators to pigeonhole it as reflexively anti-
ots website, although Varley says she does not regularly
government, but the concerns of grassroots Tea Partiers
participate in TPP conference calls.
about representation should not be confused with blan-
The Greater Boston Tea Party's ties to the network of
ket opposition to all federal social programs. Tea Party
conservative advocacy groups do not imply that all Mas-
activists hold positive views about the government enti-
sachusetts Tea Partiers have warm feelings towards the offi-
tlement programs from which they personally benefit--
cial Republican Party or leading Republican candidates,
including Social Security and Medicare, and also other
however. For instance, at an event in Reading, Massachu-
entitlement programs they have used. For example, Mas-
setts, the mention of Sarah Palin brought grimaces to the
sachusetts respondent Charles, a retired police officer,
face of a number of Tea Party activists--even as other
mentioned that he had been "brought up on welfare, and
activists at a Brockton gathering expressed hope that by
had to work [his] way out." Others referred to having
volunteering at the Tax Day rally, they might get to meet
relied on unemployment insurance after losing their jobs,
Palin in person. Clearly aware of her audiences' diverse
or expecting to rely on Social Security in the future.
views about the 2008 GOP Vice Presidential candidate,
These results are in accordance with the CBS News/New
Perspectives on Politics

York Times poll of Tea Party activists, which found that
result: 32 percent of Tea Party supporters surveyed were
about half of Tea Partiers say someone in their household
retirees.)47 Thus, the definition of "working" is an implicit
receives Medicare or Social Security benefits, and that
cultural category rather than a straightforward definition.
most Tea Party supporters believe these programs are
Even more nebulous are the contours of the "nonwork-
"worth the costs . . . for taxpayers."45 As Massachusetts
ing" or "freeloading" population. Asked by the interview-
respondent Nancy puts it: "I've been working since I was
ers about who is receiving government aid unfairly, Tea
16 years old, and I do feel like I should some day reap
Partiers tend to respond with anecdotes--including sto-
the benefit. I'm not looking for a handout, I'm looking
ries about their own black-sheep relatives. Nancy, for
for a pay out for what I've paid into."
instance, tells the story of a nephew who had "been on
The affection of grassroots Tea Partiers for major pro-
welfare his whole life." Indeed, in the stories Tea Party
grams like Social Security is at odds with the policies pushed
members tell, there are only two groups of people unambig-
by many of the elite national organizations that fund their
uously included in the "nonworking" population: young
protests. For example, FreedomWorks (a major funder of
people and unauthorized immigrants. In interviews, many
Tea Party Patriots) was active in President Bush's cam-
Tea Party activists describe the young as less responsible
paign to privatize Social Security, and FreedomWorks
than earlier generations. Charles says, "My grandson, he's
Chairman Dick Armey has referred to Social Security as
fourteen and he asked me: `Why should I work, why can't
"generational theft."46 At a grassroots level, however, Tea
I just get free money?'" An April 2009 blog on the Greater
Partiers judge entitlement programs not in terms of abstract
Boston Tea Party website entitled "Oh SNAP! Food-
free-market orthodoxy, but according to the perceived
stamps for College Kids?" begins "Call me crazy, but when
deservingness of recipients.
I needed money for college, I got a job." After telling the
The distinction between "workers" and "people who
story of her nephew, Nancy concludes, "I think that a lot
don't work" is fundamental to Tea Party ideology on the
of [young] people . . . they just feel like they are entitled."
ground. First and foremost, Tea Party activists identify
Unauthorized immigrants are also explicitly included
themselves as productive citizens. We began our Massa-
in the "nonworking" population who may try to freeload
chusetts interviews with an open-ended question about
at the expense of hardworking American taxpayers. In gen-
what brought interviewees to the Tea Party. A striking
eral, Tea Partiers do not explain their opposition to
percentage of Tea Party activists responded by talking
unauthorized immigration in terms of a job threat. Of all
about themselves as workers. Emmy says, "I'm almost 66
those we spoke to, only one Tea Party member, Janet,
years old and I'm still working." Krislyn calls herself and
expressed concern that "these people are going to be com-
her husband "blue-collar working-class people" who have
ing in and take our jobs." Most Tea Party activists couch
"had to work very hard." This self-definition is posed in
their opposition to unauthorized immigration in terms of
opposition to nonworkers seen as profiting from govern-
immigrants receiving undue government support, a con-
ment support for whom Tea Party adherents see them-
cern that bleeds into a broader concern about representa-
selves as footing the bill. As Charles put it, "people no
tion. One commonly expressed fear among Tea Partiers,
longer have to work for what they earn." Robert says,
not only in Massachusetts but on Tea Party blogs from
"We shouldn't be paying for other people that don't work."
Arizona to Michigan, is that President Obama intends to
A typical sign at the April 14 rally on the Boston Com-
grant amnesty to all illegal immigrants in order to develop
mon read, "Redistribute My Work Ethic," and similar
a new bloc of potential voters. The support of these new
signs have appeared at rallies across the country. Tea Party
voters, Tea Partiers argue, would allow the Obama admin-
anger is stoked by perceived redistributions--and the threat
istration to continue to ignore the interests of current
of future redistributions--from the deserving to the
American citizens.
undeserving. Government programs are not intrinsically
We find this concern about immigration to be central
objectionable in the minds of Tea Party activists, and
to Tea Party ideology. When we polled Massachusetts Tea
certainly not when they go to help them. Rather, govern-
Partiers about the issues they thought were most impor-
ment spending is seen as corrupted by creating benefits
tant for the Tea Party to address, 62 out of 79, or 78
for people who do not contribute, who take handouts at
percent of respondents, thought that "Immigration and
the expense of hard-working Americans.
Border Security" was "very important." In fact, immigra-
Though the opposition between working and nonwork-
tion and border security came in a close second to the
ing people is fundamental to Tea Party ideology, the empir-
Boston Tea Partiers' top-ranked concern about "Deficits
ical dividing line between these categories is not
and Spending" (rated very important by 69 of the 79
immediately clear. For instance, the distinction between
respondents). Moreover, discussions of immigration seemed
workers and nonworkers is not necessarily linked to actu-
to provoke an especially emotional response. One Boston
ally holding a job. In Massachusetts, a third of Tea Party
member spoke of wanting to "stand on the border with a
members we surveyed were students, unemployed peo-
gun," while another complained about the "free-for-all
ple, or retirees. (The New York Times found a similar
south of the border." The prominence of immigration as a
March 2011 | Vol. 9/No. 1 33

Articles | The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism
Tea Party issue in Massachusetts is especially noteworthy
predictor of racial resentment," even after accounting for
given that this state has relatively low levels of unautho-
ideology and partisanship.51 That is to say, though many
rized immigration, and the Greater Boston Tea Partiers
opponents of the social safety net tend to hold negative
were surveyed well before the controversy over Arizona's
views of racial minorities, Tea Partiers espouse views more
new immigration law reached a fever pitch in the national
extreme than those offered by other conservative Repub-
headlines. But the Tea Party concern with immigration
licans. For instance, Tea Partiers are more likely than other
and possible immigrant misuse of resources is not unique
conservatives to agree with statements such as "If blacks
to Massachusetts. Nationally, 80 percent of Tea Party activ-
would only try harder they could be just as well off as
ists see illegal immigration as a very serious problem, com-
whites," and are more likely to disagree with statements
pared to 60 percent of Americans overall.48
like "Generations of slavery and discrimination have cre-
Underlying many specific Tea Party worries is distrust
ated conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work
of politicians, the sense that the political class is not respon-
their way out of the lower class."
sive or accountable to "average Americans." Of the politi-
It is important, however, to note that we found strong
cians in Washington, Beverly says, "They just didn't seem
opposition to explicit racism in the Greater Boston Tea
to care about the regular working person any more." Oth-
Party. When avowedly racist messages suddenly appeared
ers make little distinction between the nonworking class
on the Boston Tea Party MeetUp site, Massachusetts Tea
and the current administration. Charles, the retired police
Party members let the newcomer know he was not wel-
officer, worries that "the people I was looking for back
come. Andrea posted: "This country is made up of people
when I was a cop are now running the government." In
from all countries, that's what made us what we are. . . . I
sum, Tea Party activists remain deeply concerned about
wouldn't want it any other way." When it came to public
this nonworking and perhaps criminal class of people,
events, moreover, Greater Boston Tea Party members
typified by young people and unauthorized immigrants,
expressed concern that outsiders might bring inappropri-
who have unduly profited from government programs
ate or racist signs to protests, and wanted to ensure there
wrested control of the government from hardworking aver-
was a plan to remove those people. No such signs were
age Americans. It is this belief, rather than any absolutist
present at any Boston Tea Party event attended by the
commitment to free-market principles, that underlies Tea
researchers. In short, explicitly racist appeals violate norms
Party opposition to government programs.
of equality held by Massachusetts Tea Partiers.52
The vigilance of Massachusetts Tea Partiers against
Racial, Ethnic, and Generational Resentment
explicit racism may not be typical of Tea Partiers in all
Many Americans link a person's deservingness to the effort
regions, however. At least some Tea Party activists outside
the person puts forth; hard work is, after all, a cornerstone
Massachusetts have complained on their private web pages
of the American Dream.49 But the Tea Party dichotomy of
about "censorship" of their MeetUp page by MeetUp staff,
the "freeloader" versus the "hardworking taxpayer" has
who have disqualified Tea Party activists for inappropriate
racial undertones that distinguish it from a simple reiter-
postings. Explicitly racist signs have appeared at Tea Party
ation of the longstanding American creed. Racial resent-
rallies nationally.53
ment stokes Tea Party fears about generational societal
Rather than conscious, deliberate, and publicly expressed
change, and fuels the Tea Party's strong opposition to Pres-
racism, these racial resentments form part of a nebulous
ident Obama.
fear about generational societal change--fears that are crys-
In this respect, it is telling that immigration worries Tea
tallized in Tea Party opposition to President Obama. As
Party activists almost as much as the avowed flagship issue,
we've seen, many Tea Partiers are deeply concerned that
deficits and spending. As Brader et al. have shown, fears of
the country they live in is not the country of their youth--
immigration are closely linked to the ethnic identity of
and that they themselves are no longer represented by the
the immigrants in question.50 In interviews, Tea Partiers
US government. It is no coincidence that the Tea Party
who talk about immigration control regularly mention
emerged only weeks into the new president's term; in
the security of the US border with Mexico, suggesting
Greenberg Quinlan Rosner's study, only five percent of
that their primary concern is with Latino immigration.
Tea Party supporters report having voted for Obama in
What is more, the younger people that many older Tea
2008.54 The nation's first black president, a man with a
Partiers associate with undeservingness are a part of the
foreign father, Obama is so widely perceived as "other"
US population steadily becoming more racially and eth-
that 42 percent of Americans and 59 percent of Tea Par-
nically diverse.
tiers doubt his nationality.55 Moreover, Obama ran on an
Are Tea Partiers, therefore, simply racists? Only one
explicit platform of change, in a campaign that appealed
national survey has attempted a careful measurement of
to the young and reached out to racial and ethnic minor-
racial resentment among Tea Partiers compared to politi-
ities. For Tea Partiers, as for many Americans, the election
cally similar Americans. Christopher Parker and his asso-
of Barack Obama symbolized the culmination of genera-
ciates find that "support for the Tea Party remains a valid
tions of societal change. For his supporters, this is a matter
Perspectives on Politics