What’s next for the Tea Party? Understanding movement success and failure

Social movement scholars have often struggled with operationalizing movement success and/or failure, and rightfully so.   What may be considered a failure to scholars may be perceived as success to activists. In addition, movements are not monoliths and therefore success for some activists or for some groups, may not be relevant to other aspects of a movement. Finally, talking about success and failure also rests on the assumption that we know about the intentions of movement actors – that there are clearly stated and known objectives and that the decisions actors make are in reference to achieving those goals and objectives. Often, we can only speculate about motivations and intent; presumably success can also come about unintentionally. I have written about how the Occupy movement has shifted the spotlight to scholars’ understanding of movement outcomes, but I suggest that the Tea Party also requires us to think about how we define movement success and failure.

Back in January, I wrote a blog entry titled “What happened to the Tea Party.” I wrote about how media personalities and talk show hosts, prompted by the Republican primaries, focused on whether the Tea Party was over. David Frum had alluded to the end of the Tea Party suggesting that it failed to provide an alternative candidate to Mitt Romney.  Have we learned anything new about the Tea Party’s successes and failures post presidential election?

A few weeks ago, CNN’s Gary Tuchman had a weekend segment about what happened to the Tea Party. More recently, on November 21st, Carol Costello, on her morning show, asked her guests Robert Zimmerman (on the left) and Ana Navarro (on the right) about whether the Tea Party was done, and if not, where does it go from here?  The preamble to the question was framed in terms of the Tea Party’s congressional losses in the recent election.

Interestingly both commentators seem to agree that when talking about Tea Party successes and failures, it is important to distinguish between grassroots and elite segments of the movement. While the elite part of the movement, to some extent, failed at promoting its entire agenda within government, the grassroots component did bring voters out to the polls which, according to Navaro, helped Republicans. While Navaro shied away from a debate about whether the Tea Party actually hurt the Republicans (rather than bringing voters out to the polls), she did suggest that the Tea Party needs to return to its original goals of fiscal responsibility and small government rather than focus on social issues. Zimmerman also suggests that there are important grassroots elements to the Tea Party but that this has been coopted by those on the far right, as well as conservative elites. While neither Navaro nor Zimmerman directly answered the question about whether the Tea Party was done for, they both agreed that changes were necessary or else Republicans will face the same losing scenario in the midterm elections.

A continuing theme in the discourse about failure and success in the Tea Party still revolves around whether one is referring to elites (like the Koch brothers, Americans for Prosperity, etc.) or the local grassroots activists that Skocpol and Williamson discuss in their recent book on the subject. Navarro notes the unstructured nature of the Tea Party and the importance that the grassroots component has for the Republican Party, while Zimmerman used the word “coopt” throughout the segment suggesting that elite outside forces turned the Tea Party into “fringe politics.” If the Tea Party is done, is this type of cooptation what will ultimately explain its demise? If there is genuine grassroots discontent, these activists and their grievances are not simply going to disappear. But as Skocpol and Williamson note in their book, the Tea Party, especially after the November election, will need to rethink the ways in which it frames its grievances particularly so as to sound more appealing to younger activists who are necessary for movement sustainability. Whatever the cause (s) of demobilization and decline, the Tea Party raises important questions about how we conceptualize and explain movement outcomes.

1 Comment

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One response to “What’s next for the Tea Party? Understanding movement success and failure

  1. Very useful essay. Thanks.

    I do not find the terms “fringe,” or “extremist” to be useful terms. They conflate ideology with methodology and place the target group in terms of a claimed and mythical “Political Center” portrayed as “ideal.”

    The Skocpol and Williamson book seemed superficial and lacking context, while the book by Street and DiMaggio simply dismissed the Tea Party as an elite creation and not a real grassroots movement. Pettinicchio is hitting the nail on its head when he points out that these folks are not going away and we need better conceptualizations and theories of movements and their outcomes.

    Geography matters:
    Actual grassroots Tea Party SMOs are very dependent on demographics and key topics favored by local activists. This came out in papers at a recent conference at the CUNY Graduate Center.

    Methodology matters:
    Insurgents–L/W Dissidents–Dems–Repubs–RW Dissidents—Insurgents

    Pre-existing recruit pools matter:
    Anti-collectivist & anti-big government frames & narratives circulated within conservative and right-wing SMO’s and networks.
    (See essay on “Producerism” and a full chart near bottom of this page

    Timeline matters:

    1) Right-wing Libertarian Ron Paul Tea Party Fundraising Day raises millions. December 17, 2007
    2) Elite Conservative institutions develop economic/fiscal focus and train grassroots leaders
    3) Trigger event = Rick Santelli rant – February 2009
    4) Actual grassroots social movement forms
    5) Right-wing Libertarians pushed out of leadership of local groups by Christian Right activists and Patriot/Militia activists joining Tea Party movement

    Organizational frame extension & alignment matters:
    ——————/——–/Republican Party\——\—————————–
    Elite Institutions—-Tea Party—- Christian Right & Patriot/Militia


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