Will the Tea Party outlive Barack Obama’s presidency? Or will it flame out once its chief antagonist retires? The answer should tell us something about whether the movement is driven by issues or intolerance. The issues will keep coming. Tea Partiers vocally oppose budget deficits and government spending; both problems will persist after Obama leaves office in 2017. (Even Paul Ryan does not envision a balanced budget before 2023.) The Internal Revenue Service is not going out of business any time soon, despite recent scandals. And the Constitution will always need defending: so shout the angry men in tri-cornered hats when they are not trying to repeal the Fourteenth Amendment.
On the issues, then, the Tea Party still has much work to do. But it won’t survive if what truly animates its members is antipathy toward Obama. A new empirical study of the Tea Party, Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America by political scientists Christopher Parker and Matt Barreto, finds that the common element of the Tea Party—the issue that unites its supporters as much as any matter of policy—is revulsion for the person of Barack Hussein Obama. He is Valjean to the Tea Party’s Javert. If Obama-bashing sustains the Tea Party, will it go away without him?
Parker and Barreto’s finding implicates more than just race. The problem is not merely that Obama is a black man, but that he symbolizes everything that Tea Partiers dislike about the direction of the country. Thus Obama’s skin color is part of the equation, but so are his international background, his exotic-sounding name, his past work on behalf of the inner-city poor, his urban and openly intellectual affiliations, and the demographic change that he represents. As the authors put it: Tea Partiers believe that Obama is “conspiring with liberals and minorities to subvert the American way, ultimately stealing the United States from them, its rightful heirs.”
71 percent of Tea Party supoprters think Obama will destroy the country.
In The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Richard Hofstadter argued that right-wing movements often harbor a perception of “a conspiracy against a way of life.” Following Hofstadter, Parker and Barreto suggest that Obama’s ascendance threatens the Tea Partiers’ traditional understanding of America. The president does not look like them or reflect their values; he personifies in an unavoidable way the changing face of the country. Thus the Tea Party despises Obama personally, distorting him into a grotesque papier-mâché figure good only for burning in effigy. Cue the Hitler moustaches, Nazi salutes, and dark mutterings of socialism in response to what are in fact very mild center-left policies. The “birther” controversy, which remarkably persists in some quarters, bears all the hallmarks of Hofstadter’s paranoid style: state officials in Hawaii supposedly conspiring to hide Obama’s foreign lineage, thereby defiling the Constitution.
According to Parker and Barreto, 91 percent of Tea Party supporters hold negative opinions of Obama. (This beats the 82 percent who hold negative views of illegal immigrants, and, even more tellingly, the 85 percent who report a preference for limited government.) Sixty-seven percent of Tea Party supporters believe that Obama is a socialist, and 71 percent think he will destroy the country. Destroy the country! In contravention of basic, established facts, solid majorities do not believe that he is a Christian (71 percent) or that he was born in the United States (59 percent). Parker and Barreto take pains to distinguish these views from those of non-Tea Party conservatives, and to ensure—by means of regression analysis—that Tea Party affinity, and not some other factor like support for the Republican Party, accounts for the figures. Most distressingly, fully two-thirds of Tea Party supporters want Obama to fail. It is profoundly dispiriting to confirm that so many on the far right put ideological purity over the common good.
Maybe none of this matters anymore, because the Tea Party is not the force it once was. Its flints are damp and its muskets have been misfiring. Despite much exertion, it failed to defeat Obama’s signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act, either in Congress or the courts. Tea Party stars like Richard Mourdock, Joe Walsh, and Allen West all lost congressional elections in 2012, and exit polling after that election revealed shrinking support for the Tea Party (21 percent, down from 40 percent in the 2010 mid-terms). Moderate Republican senate candidates outperformed Tea Party candidates in contested 2012 races, as measured by margin of victory. Michele Bachmann, the Tea Party voice in the most recent presidential primary field, may soon face indictment for violating campaign finance rules.
But an obituary for the movement would be premature. The Tea Party continues to stymie centrist legislating, using the threat of primary challenges to cow moderate Republicans. Who knows whether the effort in April to pass modest gun control legislation might have succeeded, had half a dozen senators not worried about challenges from the right. Republicans may nominate a Tea Party favorite like Marco Rubio or Rand Paul as their next presidential candidate. Before 2016, declarations of death seem premature.
Change They Can’t Believe In offers valuable empirical data on the Tea Party, and its focus on supporters’ antagonism toward Obama is critical to understanding the movement. But the book includes a serious misstep: a sustained comparison of the Tea Party to the Ku Klux Klan. In some quarters this will ruin their credibility and cause readers to ignore their important social scientific findings. Although Parker and Barreto demonstrate that both the Tea Party and the Klan are reactionary movements driven by a fear of displacement by white, middle-class Protestants, they largely ignore the huge divide that separates the groups: the use of violence. At its worst, the Tea Party has flirted with violent rhetoric, using incendiary language and symbolism like Sarah Palin’s bulls-eye map targeting Democratic members of Congress. Ugly and disturbing this may be, but the Tea Party has never come close to the terrorism deployed by the Klan. To disregard this distinction is irresponsible. The better comparison by far is to the John Birch Society of the 1960s, which the authors also explore at length.
George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan spent freely, running up deficits, and did not spark a populist backlash. Bush, not Obama, signed into law the hated Troubled Asset Relief Program and Emergency Economic Stabilization Act. Mitt Romney implemented his own version of Obamacare in Massachusetts and yet earned the Republican nomination for president. Reviled though Bill Clinton was on the right, no one questioned his citizenship. Reagan and George H.W. Bush raised taxes, and even if the latter was voted out of office for it, Americans did not paint devil’s horns on his portrait or question whether he was a true American. The Tea Party’s disgust with Obama is a thing apart from ordinary partisanship: It transcends his policies and ultimately rejects him for who he is. When Obama leaves office, regardless of who replaces him, Tea Party supporters may believe they’ve taken the country back. If they do, and they finally pipe down, they’ll look in retrospect like just another reactionary fringe group. In silly hats.
Michael O’Donnell is a lawyer who lives in Evanston, Illinois. His writing has appeared in The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, and Washington Monthly.