Interview by

Catalyst interviews Vanessa Williamson, coauthor (with Theda Skocpol) of The Tea Party & the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.


Can you remind us about the developments that drove the Tea Party’s initial appearance in the wake of Obama’s election in November 2008?


Within weeks of President Obama’s inauguration, there were scattered local protests opposing his approach to stabilizing the American economy. There were demonstrations against the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (popularly known as the “economic stimulus package”), against Obama’s housing policies, and so on. These protests were very small — often a few dozen people. You’d see signs calling for “states’ rights” and all kinds of other things. It was far from a coordinated movement.

The use of phrases like “states’ rights” should remind us that the Tea Party did not spring from nowhere. The Republican Party has been moving rightward for decades, and it was not a coincidence that several Tea Party activists I interviewed dated their first political experience to Barry Goldwater. The Tea Party was simply a new iteration of that politics.

You start to see concerted “Tea Party” events in late February 2009, after Rick Santelli, a CNBC news personality, went on a “rant” on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile exchange, complaining that Obama’s housing policies would benefit irresponsible people at the expense of hardworking Americans, and calling for a “Chicago Tea Party” to address the issue. The speech was picked up by conservative radio hosts and eventually by Fox News, which actively promoted the April 15 “Tax Day” Tea Party rallies for weeks in advance. Fox News hosts acted as headliners for Tea Parties across the country. The “Tea Party” symbolism gave conservatives, disheartened after the defeats of 2006 and 2008, a new label to rally behind.

That summer, Tea Party members participated angrily in their representatives’ town hall meetings, and in September there was another large Tea Party protest in Washington. Early the following year, Republican candidates won some surprising elections — including Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts — and in the midterm elections, Republicans retook the House and were in a position to stymie the Obama administration’s agenda for the next six years.


What was the relationship of the initial Tea Party to the Republican Party? What were the main points of conflict?


The Tea Party was not a monolith. In our book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, we describe its three discrete elements. First, a grassroots base made up of older white conservatives who were very concerned about demographic change and immigration was galvanized by the election of Barack Obama. Second, a conservative media infrastructure served as a kind of social movement organization to rally the grassroots base. Third, a segment of the Republican elite, typified by the Koch brothers, was dedicated to a very extreme antigovernment ideology and worked to harness the energy of the Tea Party moment into long-term electoral power.

The three components of the Tea Party were not in perfect alignment. The grassroots members of the Tea Party felt deeply threatened by the demographic and social changes represented by the election of Barack Obama. They worried that Obama’s policies would benefit “undeserving” people, people who did not work hard enough to earn their benefits. Of course, this perception of welfare is not new and has always been suffused with racist assumptions about who works hard. Tea Party activists were also especially concerned about immigration, and immigrants receiving government benefits without paying their share of taxes. On the other hand, Tea Party activists supported the major components of the welfare state that supported people like them — Social Security and Medicare. This support for benefits for the “deserving” put rank-and-file Tea Partiers at odds with the more elite elements of the Tea Party who were (and are) committed to a major rollback of the social safety net for everyone. When Obama was in the White House, it was relatively easy to paper over these differences. But now, with unified Republican control in Washington, I think you are beginning to see the tension between the extreme ideology of cutting the social safety net, and the reality that the Republican base benefits from government programs along with everyone else. That’s why the politics of the Freedom Caucus are so interesting. Of course, operating as a minority bloc within the party, you may be able to take your ideological stand with the knowledge that the rest of the party will, in essence, save you from yourself.

The question of why this right-wing extremism has caught on is complicated. Some of the political polarization in recent decades seems to have stemmed from rising economic inequality and from geographic shifts in partisanship — Democrats crowded in cities and Republicans dominating rural areas. And then, of course, the parties are increasingly sorting by ethnicity, which any comparative-politics expert would tell you does not bode well for our democracy. Finally, periods of racist reaction tend to follow periods of racial progress, and I think we are definitely seeing that now. I do not think there is a single answer.

What is striking, however, is the extent to which members of Congress have given up on playing a “long game.” There does not seem to be much sense that they need to preserve institutions or practices for when the majority changes hands again, which typically serves as a stay on extremism.

But back in 2009 and 2010, when the Republicans were in the minority, it was relatively easy to mask these differences. Still, a relatively small part of the Republican elite recognized and moved quickly to take advantage of the Tea Party’s grassroots energy. Americans for Prosperity (AFP), for instance, massively expanded its reach in the states during the Tea Party era, often working with local Tea Party activists on their policy priorities, most prominently their campaign to roll back union rights. Today AFP is part of a broader network of organizations supported by the Koch brothers that operates with a level of funding and staffing equivalent to a major political party.

But AFP’s priorities were not really the primary issues that motivated grassroots activists in 2009 and 2010. And this is something we saw come to the forefront in the 2016 election. Donald Trump really managed to tap into the grassroots Republican xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment.


Could you please lay out what seemed to be the potential and limits of the Tea Party?


As a movement of older white conservatives, the Tea Party was always limited demographically. This is a general problem in the Republican Party, which is a primary reason we are seeing voter suppression laws appear in Republican-controlled states that could be competitive for Democrats. If you do not have enough voters to win a majority, you have two choices. One, you can reach out to new constituencies. Two, you can disenfranchise and demobilize the voting blocs that typically support your opponents, so that your voters are still a majority on Election Day even if they aren’t a majority of the population. The contemporary Republican Party has chosen the second option.

The other limitation of the Tea Party is less obvious. Within a year of Obama’s inauguration, about nine hundred local Tea Party groups had sprung into existence. These groups were engaged in local politics, holding regular meetings: real grassroots activism. But a year after the 2010 midterms, more than a third of those groups had died out. The grassroots Tea Party had an impact in the early years of the Obama administration, in concert with media and elite aspects of the Tea Party. The grassroots did not have staying power as an independent set of organizations.

That rapid decline should serve as a warning for the groups on the Left that have been following the Tea Party playbook in organizing opposition to Trump. If you are looking for a model of sustained activism over more than a few years, the grassroots Tea Party is not it. I think groups like Indivisible have done tremendous work to build grassroots energy on the Tea Party model, but they will need more than the Tea Party example if they want to persist. Luckily, the Left has a rich tradition to draw upon.


Did the Tea Party electorate flock to Trump?


I think it is a mistake to imagine there is a distinct “Tea Party electorate.” The Tea Party was a label adopted by older white conservatives in the early years of the Obama administration. Tea Party supporters were sometimes angry that Republican elected officials were too moderate, but they were still Republicans. In the general election, of course, the Republican electorate as a whole flocked to Trump.

But there is certainly continuity between the motivating issues of the Tea Party and Trump’s supporters. Even compared to other conservative Republicans, Tea Party supporters had especially negative views about immigrants and ethnic minorities. They also tended to endorse more authoritarian policies. In the Republican primary, Trump’s supporters were distinct from other Republicans in their anti-immigrant attitudes and were also especially authoritarian. So, within the Republican Party, the attitudes that distinguished Tea Party supporters were also the attitudes that distinguished Trump supporters.


What can we expect in terms of policy? Will Trump actually put into place a significant right-wing populist program?


There is no reason to be surprised that the right-populist rhetorical positions Trump took during the campaign amount to nothing substantive when they conflict with the priorities of Republican leaders in Congress who actually understand the politics and the procedures by which legislation occurs. Doing serious work on behalf of anyone else, in particular on behalf of working and middle-class people, would be wholly out of keeping with Trump’s personal and professional history.

The real tension is not between Trump and the Republicans, but between an extreme antigovernment ideology that has taken hold among Republican elites and the realities of governing. That tension would exist even if one’s idea of governing were simply placating a base — that is, older white people who, by and large, rely on major government programs like Social Security and Medicare.

The Republican Party is in a strange position right now. With unified political control, it is likely their best opportunity to pass the major cuts to the social safety net that free-market ideologues like the Koch brothers have been seeking for decades. But, at the same time, Republicans are now in the position of actually having to govern. In the Obama era, they could impose austerity via gridlock — shut down the government and impose arbitrary, across-the-board cuts with the excuse that the other party was not willing to negotiate. They could weaken progressive policies and then decry those policies’ limitations. Now it is harder to shift blame for cuts to popular programs. You can see the challenge in the fight over the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Suddenly, voting for repeal is not a symbolic act but a real piece of policymaking, and the value of “Obamacare” becomes clearer to people.

In terms of Trump’s personal impact on policymaking, I think it is likely to be threefold. One, continued attacks on civil liberties, particularly for immigrants and minorities. Two, as we saw with the Carrier deal, perhaps some symbolic moves that give the impression that the administration is defending American workers and jobs, with minimal actual effects other than large cash infusions for those companies’ CEOs. Finally, to the extent that the administration’s political appointees can shape policy implementation, we can expect incompetence, conflicts of interest, and profiteering.


Will implementing benefit cuts have legislative consequences?


To the extent that Republicans cut the benefits their base relies upon, they do risk legislative consequences — presuming those benefits are sufficiently obvious. Not every fight is going to play out like the aborted effort at ACA repeal, however. Much of our welfare state is “submerged,” as Suzanne Mettler describes it, so it is often hard for Americans to perceive the ways they benefit from government — for instance, via tax benefits rather than direct spending. Moreover, by drawing out the timeline for benefits reductions, running programs poorly, and starving government of funds via top-heavy tax cuts, Republicans can certainly find backdoor ways to damage American social protections.

About the Author

Vanessa Williamson is a fellow in governance studies at the Brooking Institution. Her latest book is Read My Lips: Why Americans Are Proud to Pay Taxes.