Since the emergence of the Tea Party a few years back, analysts have offered two alternative views to explain its sudden – and startling - rise to popularity and influence. One view is the Tea Party arose as a specific response to the nomination and election of Illinois Senator Barack Obama as the first African American to the nation’s highest political office. Other students of politics have argued the movement arose out of the much deeper American tradition of populist ideology that has frequently included anger against big national financial institutions throughout history; but that in this latest eruption, it has also become tinged with growing fears over a perceived loss of that somewhat mythologised, Norman Rockwell-style America as a white, middle-class, Protestant nation. Pollster, political analyst and campaign strategist-for-hire Stanley Greenberg set out to test this question, using carefully structured focus groups. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a closer look at some of the results.
In recent days, columnists at both the New York Times and Bloomberg View have looked carefully at Greenberg’s recent research. The conclusion appears to be: both the Obama-centric and the deep-seated sociological/political origins positions have both contributed substantially to the growth of the Tea Party’s political evolution and the impact of its political voice. More interestingly still, however, these two views have mutually reinforced each other, contributing to this faction’s current strength and influence within the Republican Party. Given such an analysis, it may be increasingly difficult to argue that this movement is effectively a brief, transitory moment whose influence will soon pass from the American political scene as did the Populists or Free Silver Party.
Writing in the New York Times the other day, Thomas Edsall argued that a significant portion of the America’s political landscape shares some of the same intensity of feeling that gripped the Southern states on the eve of the American Civil War a hundred and fifty years ago.
And Frank Wilkinson at Bloomberg wrote that many Americans simply were not ready for the election of a mixed-race president, they weren’t ready for gay marriage, the transformation of American demographics in the past thirty years, and, in the economic sphere, they were not prepared for the increasingly harsh impact of globalisation on working and middle class families and incomes – let alone the ongoing fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. Moreover, their congressmen didn’t stop Obamacare and they didn’t succeed in their promise to “take back America”.
For such individuals, the very culture of the nation is running away from them and, on top of everything else, they believe they have lost the ability to control their government. The truth of the matter, in their view, is that they have just enough power through those forty-plus Tea Party representatives to shut the whole thing down.
It isn’t just avowed Tea Party fans of course who have some of these feelings. It is broader. A dislike – sometimes even a loathing – of government has been growing at an astonishing rate among those identifying themselves as Republicans. A Gallup survey from two weeks ago found that 81% of Republicans polled said that the federal government has too much power – a new high on this question. The rightward movement among Republican voters grew for the period 2002-2010 rose 10% from 62% to 72%, even as self-identifying moderate Republicans slipped from 31% to 23%.
In fact, these trends have antecedents reaching back some forty years. Various surveys have found that self-identifying conservative Republicans jumped from 42% to 65% through to 2008, even as moderate Republicans dropped ten percentage points to 16%. Liberal Republicans (such as earlier luminaries like Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Senators Jacob Javits, Ed Brooke, Clifford Case, Charles Percy and Richard Lugar) went from being a tenth of the Republican electorate to a risible 4%.
Meanwhile, a Pew Research Center survey from a month ago shows strong discontent with the current House of Representatives and Senate party leadership on the part of Republican rank and file voters. Some two-thirds of them disapprove of both Congressman John Boehner and Senator Mitch McConnell.
Looking closely at this set of trends, Democratic pollster and campaign strategist Stanley Greenberg – the man significantly responsible for Bill Clinton’s victories and a frequent election consultant to international clients, including political parties in South Africa – has been running a concentrated study entitled, “The Republican Party Project”, for the liberal NPO, Democracy Corps. Greenberg argues, reports Edsall, that “you cannot understand the government shutdown unless you understand the GOP from the inside.” In other words, “know thine enemy, better than thyself.” Greenberg and his team of researchers have divided Republican voters into three categories: evangelical and religiously observant voters (47%); libertarian leaning/Tea Party supporters (22%); and moderates at 25%. (See chart)
In early October, Greenberg’s organisation released the data from a series of six focus groups conducted among the evangelical and other religiously observant Republicans, Tea Party/libertarian supporters and moderate Republicans. Based on the results of these focus groups, a key factor pushing Republicans to further extremes is the astonishing animosity towards President Obama. Looked at as a word cloud, the most often-cited word was “liar”, followed other positives like “crook” and “lies, along with “overrated” and “liberal.” (Chart two)
While few in the focus groups explicitly spoke of Obama in overtly racial terms, the discussions revealed a very strong consciousness of their being white in a country with growing numbers of minorities, and that the Democratic Party is carrying out policies tailored to help minority groups. Such voters, according to Greenberg’s report, now take as an article of faith that they have lost a larger, even existential, battle. Says Greenberg’s report, “While many voters, including plenty of Democrats, question whether Obama is succeeding and getting his agenda done, Republicans think he has won. The country as a whole may think gridlock has triumphed, particularly in the midst of a Republican-led government shutdown, but Republicans see a president who has fooled and manipulated the public, lied, and even gotten his secret socialist, Marxist agenda done. Republicans and their kind of Americans are losing.”
Greenberg’s report goes on to say the Republican base continues to be fearful they are being strategically outmaneuvered. The report says, “They think they face a victorious Democratic Party that is intent on expanding government to increase dependency and therefore electoral support. It starts with food stamps and unemployment benefits; expands further if you legalise the illegals; but insuring the uninsured dramatically grows those dependent on government. They believe this is an electoral strategy – not just a political ideology or economic philosophy. If Obamacare happens, the Republican Party may be lost, in their view.”
Moreover, conservative Republicans now blame moderates in their own party for these Democratic victories. The Republican base now thinks they are losing the country itself, expressed in reactions that included words like “worried”, “discouraged”, “scared” and “concerned”, over the direction of the nation – and that they are powerless to affect the direction things are going.
A second word cloud shows the words that came up most frequently in the various focus groups.
From this study, Greenberg’s group concluded Republican voters believe the Democratic Party is explicitly on the job to create programs and dependency for Mitt Romney’s infamous 47%. Combine that with the millions of people who will flood the nation from immigration reform, beneficiaries of Obamacare and the rest, and they, real Americans, are finished. Kaput. Dead and buried. History.
Greenberg’s team also found focus group participants expressed the view that they “are very conscious of being white in a country that is increasingly minority”; and that Obama and his lackeys have won and their representatives have done nothing to stop him.
Meanwhile, self-identified moderates now feel they are becoming illegitimate within their own party.
By contrast, the other two groups – evangelicals/other religious and Tea Party/libertarians – have evolved a mutually reinforcing tie. While social issues remain key for the first group, they also feel a deep sense of political and cultural loss over the way things have gone, with a cultural rot that has now set in. Homosexuality is an important part of this, but the loss of the old-style homogeneity of small towns weighs on them as well. They have a favourable view of Tea Partiers because they stand up to Obama and his dastardly crew.
Meanwhile, the themes of big government, Obama, a loss of liberty and a decline of individual responsibility are the core of the Tea Party supporters’ world view. This is in stark contrast to that Obama-ite view of support for big government, regulations and increasing dependency on government – all of which are simply evil. The Tea Party is thus the chance to get back to those basics that will save America.
And to compound things further, Speaker of the House John Boehner is just the kind of leader they don’t want – a compromiser and negotiator who at first was almost ready to accept the reality of Obamacare – even if his party’s conservative wing has forced him to take the hard-edged road that has now led to the current government shutdown and a potential debt ceiling default crisis as well. Given all of these findings, maybe the new required reading list among the Republican establishment leadership cadre on Capitol Hill should start including more than just the standard economics fantasies of the Tea Party crowd. Perhaps they may want to add Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and “Julius Caesar” to their nighttime reading for useful insights on understanding how leadership change happens within a highly motivated political cabal. Before it is too late for them. DM
Photo: Photo: Attendees cheer at the Tea Party Patriots ‘Exempt America from Obamacare’ rally on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, September 10, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
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