Crashing the (Republican) Party: The Tea Party and the Republican Primaries

By Chris Parker

Most people are familiar with the Tea Party by now, a movement that burst onto the political scene in the early days of the Obama presidency. There is little doubt that they’ve energized the Republican Party. Consider the 2010 midterm election cycle. A report issued by Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights indicates that 10 sitting Republican senators were backed by one of the six major Tea Party factions, as were 85 members of the House. Still, if the ongoing Republican primaries are in any way indicative, a rift has developed between the Republican “establishment” and Republican insurgents: “grassroots” conservatives associated with Tea Party. In both South Carolina and Florida, establishment types appear to favor Mitt Romney, while strong Tea Party types, by and large, favor Newt Gingrich. What is the source of the rift? If there is a division between the two wings of the Republican Party, how big is it?

If Frank Rich, and like-minded progressives are correct, it’s possible that the source of the rift between the “establishment” and “insurgent” wings of the Republican Party is associated with the Tea Party’s political paranoia. In the interest of brevity, and at the risk of oversimplification, I’ll quickly elaborate. Originally coined by the late Richard Hofstadter, the “paranoid style” of American politics refers to a way of approaching American politics in which a certain strata perceives its way of life under siege by a competing group or faction. The ensuing anxiety generated by the perceived threat is generally accompanied by the belief in hyperbolic claims about the motives and capabilities of the source of the threat.

In short, the aggrieved group believes the insurgent party will stop at nothing short of the destruction of everything it holds dear. In the present case, if Rich and fellow travelers are correct, the Tea Party and its supporters believe President Obama willing and capable of destroying their America–An America in which blacks must stay in their place, gays remain closeted, and illegal immigrants remain on their side of the border.

Needless to say, some argue that this view of the Tea Party, and its supporters, exaggerates differences between the Tea Party and mainstream conservatives. Indeed, Tea Party elites, and conservatives who are sympathetic to the Tea Party, like Juan Williams, claim that the movement is nothing more than people fed up with big government, and who desire more fiscal responsibility. Concerns about President Obama are about partisan politics and ideology, not some deluded belief that he’s out to destroy the country.

I sought to test the proposition that the Tea Party represents the present-day John Birch Society to which Hofstadter referred in the early 1960s. As part of a larger study, I devised a survey-based experiment in which a colleague and I sought to tap into the paranoid style Rich suggests animates the Tea Party and its supporters. This study, the Multi-State Survey on Race and Politics (MSSRP), canvassed respondents in 13 states, most of which are considered swing states for the 2012 election cycle. The survey was a follow-up to a study we conducted in 2010. Both studies sought to capture the intersection of race and politics during the Obama presidency in states we thought likely to influence the outcome of the 2012 election.

We asked respondents whether or not they believed Barack Obama would “destroy the country,” as a means of capturing differences between Tea Party Republicans and the Republican establishment. We identified Tea Party Republicans as those who said they “strongly approve of the Tea Party,” and were registered Republicans. Establishment Republicans were represented by those who were registered Republicans who fail to strongly approve of the Tea Party.

It appears as though Rich is correct. Fully 51% of all Republicans believe Obama will destroy the country.  That seems shockingly high: more than half of all Republicans believe a sitting president will destroy the country. More shocking and revealing, however, is the chasm separating the competing factions of the Republican Party. While only 1% of “establishment” Republicans buy into the paranoia, 98% of Tea Party Republicans believe that the president will destroy the country. It seems, then, that political paranoia indeed separates Establishment Republicans from Tea Party Republicans.

Two reasons suggest that the division between Establishment and Tea Party Republicans will ultimately drive the Party, and the eventual nominee, to the right—far to the right.

First, while it’s true that support for the Tea Party is driven by a desire for small government, conservative ideology, and hardcore Republican partisans it’s also driven by a host of factors commensurate with the far Right. For instance, Tea Party supporters are likely to believe that some groups are superior to others (social dominance orientation), and that blacks have gotten more than they deserve (racial resentment). Moreover, our results also suggest that Tea Party supporters tend to be xenophobic and homophobic.

Second, the Republican nominee can ill afford to ignore Tea Party supporters. As of last winter, those who strongly support the Tea Party represented 25% of the voting age population, and 55% of registered Republicans. Permit me to take this a step further. During the 2010 midterm election cycle, 92% Tea Party Republicans turned out versus 84% of Establishment Republicans; 36% of Tea Party Republicans attended at least 1 political meeting versus 18% of Establishment Republicans; and where 83% of Tea Party Republicans were either very or extremely interested in politics, 65% of Establishment Republicans.

Many argue that Romney needs to put Gingrich away now so as to avoid a battle of attrition as the primaries move forward. Doing so promises to permit the Republican Party to coalesce behind their standard bearer to face what is sure to be a well-funded, battle-tested incumbent president. More importantly, many argue, ending the intra-party squabble sooner will prevent the Democrats from benefitting from the fratricidal fallout that will ensue should the battle between the Establishment and Tea Party factions run its course.

Finally, as the evidence suggests, the Tea Party cannot be ignored. For this reason, I don’t think it really matters who the Republicans nominate. Let’s assume that it’s Romney, though. The longer this process plays out, the more Romney will have to move to the right, before he’s forced to tack toward the middle as the general election approaches. The problem, for Republicans, is that Romney may not be able to move to the middle in enough time to satisfy Independents, who will likely shy away from a candidate with extreme views.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Tea Party and the Primaries

2 responses to “Crashing the (Republican) Party: The Tea Party and the Republican Primaries

  1. Thank God for the Republican Establishment. Sometimes you really do need an Establishment to take action and step in when people start getting a little crazy.


  2. Pingback: tea party forum at mobilizing ideas «

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