The Shallow Roots of the Tea Party Movement

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The Tea Party candidates beat the Republican establishment last night, most notably Christine O'Donnell in Delaware who received the Sarah Palin stamp of approval. What does this mean for the November elections? Why did voters show up to vote for someone with questionable skills, few endorsements, and a checkered background?

To answer to the November election question, I turned to Nate Silver. He hadn't foreseen the O'Donnell win and eats some crow on this score.

… Ms. O’Donnell’s victory — like Scott Brown’s in Massachusetts earlier
this year, or like Hillary Clinton’s in the New Hampshire primary two
years ago — was an emphatic reminder that voters write the script. The
rest of us self-proclaimed political professionals – journalists
and pollsters, activists and bundlers, lobbyists and party-leaders,
presidents and senators — are just the stagehands.

Silver thinks that Republicans should do very well in November, but these Tea Party candidates will have a harder time getting elected in the general election than establishment Republicans. So, good news for Democrats. Kos sent out gleeful tweets last night.

My second question is a lot trickier. Why did Republicans chose the Tea Party over the establishment last night? Keep in mind that primary voters are more extreme than the larger group of people who vote in November. Still, we have a sizable group of angry populists. For some reason, they are located in the Republican party. There doesn't seem to be the equivalent in the Democratic Party.

The Tea Party voters aren't voting for a particular program or policy; the Tea Party movement isn't really about ideology or issues. There is no central organizing structure. Palin stepped in the void and became the face of the movement, but she isn't running the show. They are channeling the deep resentment that a sector of America feels about their diminishing incomes, the insecure economy, and the marginal status in the country. As others gets wealthier, they get poorer. The unions no longer protect them. Their jobs are disappearing. This vote is about populist anger.

Democrats, who have traditionally represented these groups, could step in and get those voters, but I don't think they can or they should. Obama with his celebrity friends and his fancy education isn't one of them. Bill Clinton would probably have had a better shot at it, because Bill is a Bubba. Besides the Tea Party activists aren't entirely playing with a full deck; their anger is too hot to make them rational. It wouldn't serve the Democratic cause to have Sarah Palin in their yard.

Probably the biggest winners last night were the professional pundits who now have something to talk about.

34 thoughts on “The Shallow Roots of the Tea Party Movement

  1. They are channeling the deep resentment that a sector of America feels about their diminishing incomes, the insecure economy, and the marginal status in the country.
    Except, the Tea Party people seem relatively well-off. Of course, more people vote in primaries than go to Tea Party events. My guess, which probably fits better in places that are not on the eastern seaboard, is that there is a substantial chunk of the old Republican coalition who won’t vote Democrat (because of abortion, mostly) but who would rather see the Democrats win than the Republicans go unpunished for their part of the bailout/TARP.
    Anyway, I’m all for standing in the machinery that is the U.S. political system and throwing monkey wrenches. It’s probably for the best, in the long run.

  2. “Silver thinks that Republicans should do very well in November, but these Tea Party candidates will have a harder time getting elected in the general election than establishment Republicans.”
    Not necessarily. There has been a lot of unhappiness about TARP (especially as it turns out not to have been an economic silver bullet), and “establishment Republicans” are closely associated with TARP. I was just looking up “Mccain TARP” and it looks like McCain was doing his best during the recent primary to escape association with TARP, even though he led the charge on the silly thing.
    http://news.firedoglake.com/2010/02/24/mccains-lie-on-tarp-so-pathetic-even-j-d-hayworth-can-recognize-it/
    The Fire Dog Lake writer is a bit unfair here, because I think TARP backers really did expect that TARP would benefit a lot of people downstream from the banks. At the time, if you recall, the sky was going to fall if we didn’t immediately write big checks to the banks and not ask too many questions.
    I’ve been expecting a 2010 version of 1994’s Contract with America for some time, but there hasn’t been anything like it…yet. Some months ago, I was talking to my dad about party leadership, and we were agreeing that oddly, the Republican party has been getting on very nicely lately without leadership. However, that only gets you so far. I’d really like to see that Paul Ryan rise higher in leadership.
    “…the Tea Party movement isn’t really about ideology or issues. There is no central organizing structure…”
    I’d argue that it has plenty of ideology and issues (read the signs), but little structure. You don’t need structure to have ideology.
    “They are channeling the deep resentment that a sector of America feels about their diminishing incomes, the insecure economy, and the marginal status in the country. As others gets wealthier, they get poorer. The unions no longer protect them. Their jobs are disappearing. This vote is about populist anger.”
    I was under the impression that Tea Partiers are richer and better educated than the average American, and hence are angry because they do have a lot to lose.
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-shaw/tea-party-demographics_b_540082.html
    (Note, by the way, that I can cite Huffington Post and Fire Dog Lake without suffering ritual impurity. Not to get all French on you, but at some point, texts escape their authors and ideas acquire a life of their own, independent of the writers.)

  3. “I can cite Huffington Post and Fire Dog Lake without suffering ritual impurity.”
    You can cite HP and FDL because they’re not comprised of the insane ravings of lunatics. OK, most of the time.

  4. As a registered Republican in Massachusetts (the few, the proud…), I’ll take a stab at this.
    The Tea Party isn’t a party. It’s a wave of angry voters. It will transform the political landscape, but it won’t (IMHO) become a political party. It is perhaps revolutionary in spirit, but in the sense of “turning back” to a perceived, earlier compact.
    Why are the voters turning their back on the Republican establishment? Because the Republican establishment turned their backs on the best interests of the country. The old Reagan triangulation with the fundamentalists of the heartland played itself out long, long ago. No one in the Republican party in Washington seems to have noticed, which was one reason for their comeuppance.
    As a Republican in Massachusetts, I’d be too liberal for the rest of the country. However, I must say my burning issues are NOT abortion, the suppression of gay rights, the sanctity of family, flag burning, prayer in schools, etc. You cannot buy me off by pandering on social issues, then turn around and vote to restrict our civil rights and run up the national debt to get you elected. Hanging debt around my children’s and grandchildren’s necks loses my vote. I am socially liberal, and fiscally conservative. I suspect many, many voters are.
    Assuming that what plays well in the Bible Belt will work in the rest of the country led the Republican establishment to this pass in my state. The ads attacking Tim Cahill, paid for by the Republican Governors Association, were astoundingly tone-deaf.
    Oh, I also don’t give a da** how long the establishment candidates have spent currying favor with higher-ups in the party. I regard political dynasties as poison for trust in the system. For example, Lisa Murkowski should never have been appointed by her father to serve out his term. That is nepotism, plain and simple.

  5. Palin stepped in the void and became the face of the movement, but she isn’t running the show. They are channeling the deep resentment that a sector of America feels about their diminishing incomes, the insecure economy, and the marginal status in the country. As others gets wealthier, they get poorer. The unions no longer protect them. Their jobs are disappearing. This vote is about populist anger.
    With respect, I think you are casting the shadow of your own interpretation of Palin’s socioeconomic status on voters who have little in common with her. This will cloud your ability to understand the voters who choose to vote for non-incumbent candidates. There aren’t many union workers left in Massachusetts. There aren’t many factories left in Massachusetts. There are many small business owners who are disillusioned with Washington.

  6. I am socially liberal, and fiscally conservative. I suspect many, many voters are.
    That ain’t who voted for Christine O’Donnell. Until last week, I figured they were talking about the guy who played Robin in the sucky Batman movie, but I’m pretty sure nobody socially liberal voted for her.

  7. Speaking of socially liberal, fiscal conservatives from MA, I forgot about Scott Brown when I said there hasn’t been anybody cute in the Senate since Edwards.
    But, Cranberry is certainly right about fiscal conservatives getting nothing from the current Republicans.

  8. Note the numbers here: In the Delaware senate Republican primary, only 57,500 voted. It was a closed primary with about 183,000 registered Republicans. So, turnout was about 31%. Thus we have the electorally expressed sentiment of 16% of registered Republicans in Delaware… Gallup says that in Delaware 36% of voters are Republican or lean Republican and 49% are Democratic or lean Democratic. Since it was a closed primary, this means that O’Donnell received about 6% of Delaware votes… Perhaps we shouldn’t generalize too much at this point.

  9. I don’t know enough about the Delaware race to judge. The anti-incumbent (anti-establishment candidate) impulse does come from a mistrust of the establishment’s triangulation on Capitol Hill. The mail from the Republican establishment which reaches my mailbox is full of “questionnaires” and “polls” with questions along the lines of, “Can you believe what the (insert unflattering adjective here) Democrats want to do next?”
    Her opponent was (according to the reports here) a moderate, establishment-backed candidate. He’s been a member of Congress since 1993. He’s still a member of Congress.
    As I Googled a bit to try to understand what lies behind Delaware’s results, it’s possible that, whatever Mike Castle’s record in Congress may be, voters who went to the polls had a different impression:
    Look, guys, Castle’s a really liberal Republican. He supports cap-and-trade. You would think his 52 career ACU rating ought to be enough to dissuade folks. But since this campaign, we’ve seen O’Donnell backers say Castle voted for Obamacare (he didn’t) the stimulus (he didn’t) and now, the impeachment of Bush (he didn’t).
    9http://www.nationalreview.com/campaign-spot/246515/no-mike-castle-didnt-vote-impeach-bush)
    Were the voters voting on economic issues? Social issues? who knows? I think it’d be very hard for someone who knows all the issues like the back of her hand to step back, forget all that, and try to discover the average voter’s impression of the candidates.
    Perhaps “socially liberal” gives you the wrong impression, MH? I do vote on economic issues, and civil rights. I don’t vote for candidates who make a big deal of their standing on abortion, or gay rights, etc. Flag burning, for me, is a non-issue. To me, it’s the sign of either 1) a really stupid candidate, or 2) someone who thinks I’m really stupid. I would actively avoid voting for candidates like Mike Huckabee, who scares the socks off me.

  10. I’m another voice in the chorus: I think I read that tea-party supporters are better-off financially than the average voter.
    The tea-party folks I know tend to have voted pretty all-over-the-place in the last twenty years. Many of them are Minnesotans, and they voted for Jesse Ventura back in the day. They loved Ross Perot.
    Their seem to be three strands to the party line that I read/hear — (1) anti-big government, especially the “constitutional” opposition to the health bill (which I don’t really understand: why is the constitution being deployed to attack the health bill, why not just use existing tropes to opposite it?); (2) concern about deficits and spending — which seems to have been latent since at least 1992, although I think it’s worth looking at how this strand waxes and wanes; and (3) “this government doesn’t represent people like me,” which in longer conversations seems to indicate a fair amount of race/ethnicity-based anxiety, although few of my friends/family would ever dream of saying, “given my current level of economic anxiety, the fact that the president’s a black guy and my kids are in school with a bunch of Hispanic kids makes me even more nervous.”
    Then again, my social/familial circle ain’t a legitimate polling sample, and the commonalities amongst the folks I know who “like” Sarah Palin or the Tea Party or both on Facebook are suggestive of something but probably not very much.

  11. ACK! There. Not their.
    Also, having seen Ventura win, I’m making no predictions about November. If I had to bet money (and I’d do it kicking and screaming), I’d bet a bunch of these tea-party folks surprise everyone and win their elections.

  12. Obama with his celebrity friends and his fancy education isn’t one of them. Bill Clinton would probably have had a better shot at it, because Bill is a Bubba.
    Well, Clinton had just as fancy (or fancier- Rhodes Scholarship and all) education, and as many celebrity friends as does Obama, so maybe there is something else at play here. I think you might be getting at it obliquely by noting that Clinton is a “Bubba”, but might there not be a more direct way to state what’s different about them, and why this might matter to certain angry white voters, of all different classes?

  13. “But, Cranberry is certainly right about fiscal conservatives getting nothing from the current Republicans.”
    I don’t know that anybody was really getting much that they wanted from the current Republicans. Note also that in this dichotomy of fiscal vs. social cons, we’re forgetting the elephant in the room, namely the Iraq and Afghan wars, which were pretty much the #1 issue during Bush’s presidency.
    Had McCain been elected president, he would probably have done 50-75% of the stuff Obama has done, although it’s true that since it would have been technically “bipartisan,” he would have gotten it through with much less controversy. Would-have-beens are problematic, but it’s arguable that liberals would be in a much better political position today if John McCain were president. They’d be able to stick McCain with the economy, while simultaneously cooperating with him on putting together big new programs.
    “Since it was a closed primary, this means that O’Donnell received about 6% of Delaware votes.”
    And her Republican opponent got even less.

  14. Cranberry, I’m not doubting how you vote or telling you how you should vote. However, voters (as a whole) were not voting on social or economic issues with the kind of knowledge you mention in that NR quote. The number of people who go to the poll with that kind of detailed information couldn’t shift the outcome of a state-wide election if they all voted for the same candidate and everybody else was drunk.

  15. “I think you might be getting at it obliquely by noting that Clinton is a “Bubba”, but might there not be a more direct way to state what’s different about them, and why this might matter to certain angry white voters, of all different classes?”
    Obama gets compared to Jimmy Carter a lot, which suggests that racism doesn’t adequately explain dislike toward Obama. Being a prissy, arrogant, ineffectual milquetoast is not a widely-held US stereotype of black men. (That’s a bit uncivil, but since the question is, what do you guys dislike about Obama, I’d like to do the best I can.)
    Anyway, I thought Laura was telling us earlier that economic news explains Obama’s favorability/unfavorability more than anything else.

  16. The economy explains the general electorate — and especially why Obama has lost independents. The tea party is a slightly different phenomenon, although I bet Minnesota political reporters wouldn’t be as quick to write about it as a new phenomenon as folks in other parts of the country. (I’m sure there are other states with a longer history of this stuff, it’s just that I know Minnesota better, and boy is there a LOT of overlap between the old Ventura voters and the new Palin ones. She has really, REALLY tapped into that vein of “I’m an outsider and unpredictable and slightly crazy and that is just what this government needs.”)

  17. Taken together, “outsider” and “crazy” might suggest somebody unlikely to give a rat’s ass when AIG’s counterparties say that the world will end if they aren’t made whole.

  18. What is very interesting to me — and I’d be interested to hear what the Republicans/ Tea Partiers are thinking — is that the next “big issue” (which will take us all the way to the general election) is the expiration of the Bush tax cuts.
    As I understand it — generally Obama wants to renew “some/most” and the Republicans want to renew “more/all” of them. The big differences being the higher tax brackets and the estate tax.
    Recognizing that the Republican preference will increase the deficit by a larger amount — and a large part of the Tea Party critique is about the deficit — will the Tea Partiers object to the Republican position, or will they go along for the tax cuts?

  19. Racism is a factor with the Obama hatred. I didn’t want to get into too much in this post though. I’m not sure how much it’s a part of the Tea Party movement. When I was down south this summer driving through some rural areas, I saw some horrible anti-Obama signs. One guy put up a six foot sign of Obama dressed up as a monkey on his front lawn. Just awful.
    I know the statistics show that tea party people are better off than regular voters, but I picking up A LOT of economic resentment out there. I think the resentment is working in weird ways. Not only is it pulling down Obama’s numbers, but it’s also wreaking havoc with the Republican establishment. People are just mad at anybody in power.
    Delaware has traditionally been controlled by a small circle of people and their families. It’s a state that is ripe for Tea Party movement.

  20. The Republican leadership and candidates are going to try to pretend that there isn’t a trade-off between taxes and the deficit. The Tea Party ones will be worse on this than the establishment ones.
    Given that the Democrats are going to try to pretend we can fix everything by taxing somebody else, divided government is probably for the best.

  21. “I do vote on economic issues, and civil rights. I don’t vote for candidates who make a big deal of their standing on abortion, or gay rights, etc. ”
    Gay rights is civil rights.
    I haven’t a clue how to understand the tea party movement, and so I appreciate the anecdotes of family members who indulge. I think populist movements from a populous that’s very different from me (or from a NY times writer, or from Obama, or the TPM, or whatever) is very easy to misunderstand, sometimes to our significant harm.
    I had my tea party encounter over spring break when I was in DC during a tea party rally. It was very strange for me — I really don’t encounter people with those views (or at least those willing to express them) in my non-vacation life.

  22. In Massachusetts, gay people can marry. I don’t care for politicians, in Massachusetts, who are pro-Defense of Marriage Act, or who pretend that they’ll get my vote if they promise to attack or support gay rights, or abortion rights, or if they promise to increase wellness programs in school, or (insert pet issue here). When they get to Washington, they’ll vote with their party, whatever their party desires. If it’s expedient for the party, while making the sausages we call laws, to require members to vote against their supposed platforms, they’ll trade off their election promises for political power.
    At some point, there isn’t enough money to pay for all we would want government to do. We’ve reached that point.

  23. “Taken together, ‘outsider’ and ‘crazy’ might suggest somebody unlikely to give a rat’s ass when AIG’s counterparties say that the world will end if they aren’t made whole.”
    Unfortunately, your average semi-delusional billionaire who would make 2012 interesting is actually likely to give a rat’s ass. It could be a disappointing year for you, MH.
    On the other hand, what’s Larry Ellison doing over the next two years? I bet he’s handy with a pie chart.

  24. At some point, there isn’t enough money to pay for all we would want government to do. We’ve reached that point.
    Shoulda thought of that before dashing off to Mesopotamia.
    I’m old enough to remember when a Democratic administration left a surplus for an incoming Republican one. That sure worked out well.

  25. I think that a good chunk of the tea partiers are voting on race, though they won’t admit it. There’s enough crazy people out there touting they’re racism to cause the more sane (but still racist) folks to keep their mouths shut. The other chunk of tea partiers are voting on a variety of issues the tea partiers are espousing–low taxes (libertarianism), the economy/jobs generally (establishment folks), social issues such as health care (yikes, socialism), and abortion, gay marriage, immigration (tied to economic issues).
    My husband said last night after O’Donnell won (we are too close to Delaware for comfort) that he thinks a Hilter-like figure could arise out of all of this. I hope the system is strong enough to avoid that, but who knows.

  26. he thinks a Hilter-like figure could arise out of all of this.
    Don’t worry so much. Hitler pushed for full-employment by spending on new infrastructure platform.
    Depending on your views about what causes heart disease, you can be even less worried about Hilter, which is best known for having margarine factory.

  27. I’d just note that “better off than the average voter” and “”economically insecure and getting more so” are quite compatible. (IIRC, $60K/yr in household income is the average for voters.)

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