Shortly after the Democrats' resounding victory in 2008, many prognosticators envisioned an enduring Democratic majority. As conventional wisdom had it, the Republican Party would be hamstrung by its far right wing, particularly in the wake of the financial crisis and the failures of the Bush presidency. Republicans, so the thinking went, would need to rediscover the center and cater to it. However, this is not what happened. Shortly after Obama took office and proposed bold new legislation that expanded the scope of federal power, a grassroots conservative movement spread like wildfire through the prairies: the Tea Party Movement. In this sharp analysis of the Tea Party, Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson combine finely grained portraits of local Tea Party chapters with a big-picture analysis of the larger movement's rise and likely fate.
After explaining the movement's demographic makeup as well as the organization and operation of local chapters, Skocpol and Williamson explore their belief system. Drawing from extensive interviews with Massachusetts and Virginia chapters, they found that while Tea Partiers profess to hate government, they are generally supportive of programs that working people pay into like Social Security and Medicare. They reserve their hostility for programs that fund the 'undeserving, ' which puts the movement squarely in line with the long tradition of postwar American conservatism. Perhaps most interestingly, they have found that the movement resents illegal immigration more than any other social or economic phenomenon--even in places like Massachusetts, which is not a gateway for undocumented aliens. The authors take their story through the 2010 Congressional elections and assess what the Tea Party's strength means for both the Republican Party and the Conservative movement in the future.
Much of what the Tea Party supports cuts against other Republican commitments, like the elites' commitment to cutting social security and expanding free trade, so the movement's successes will generate new fissures. Also, the ongoing attempt by the national Republican Party to co-opt the movement will probably lead to contradictions and conflict. That said, they are a powerful new social movement in American politics--more powerful than most foresaw when they initially burst on the scene--and they will play an important role in conservatism for the foreseeable future.