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Parsing the Tea Party

Theda Skocpol, the well-known Harvard political scientist, and Vanessa Williamson, a PhD student at Harvard, have won wide praise for their book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, a crack piece of sociology and political analysis rooted in extensive on-the-ground interviews with Tea Partyers. But when I went to see them speak at Brown University on Wednesday evening, I wondered how relevant it would still feel; isn't the Tea Party an old story?

Skocpol, herself, acknowledged the concern at one point, noting that the pair had written the book on an accelerated schedule to ensure it would still catch the public interest. But the political scientist, an appealingly catankerous "New Deal liberal" (her own words), also made a strong case for the continued relevance of the Tea Party as the 2012 elections approach.

"Even though you can turn on the television every night and hear commentators say that the Tea Party is done, that it probably hasn't won very much in 2012 because the Republican nominee is not going to be a Tea Party favorite," she said, "you shouldn't believe any of that. That is seeing...the trees instead of the shape of the forest. If you look at the entire course of the Republican presidential primaries, every single candidate who has been in the running at any stage has been falling over him or herself to speak to the style of politics and the policy priorities of elite and grassroots Tea Partyers."

Even Mitt Romney, she said, has fit the bill - taking a hard line on illegal immigration, which is a potent concern for Tea Partyers. Indeed, one of the central findings of Skocpol and Williamson's book is that Tea Partyers are not opposed to government programs, per se, but to government programs for the "undeserving." Overwhelmingly white and older, they say they have earned Social Security and Medicare benefits. Others - the poor, illegal immigrants, and the young - are "moochers" who have not earned the government benefits they are accruing.

It is this contempt for the "undeserving," Skocpol and Williamson suggested in their Brown talk, that undergirds the Tea Party's intense animosity toward President Obama. Some of that animosity has racial undertones, they argued. But there is more to it: the suggestion that the president was foreign-born, the fact that he was idolized by the young during the campaign, the fact that he was a college professor - a particularly loathed class of know-it-all elitist - combines all the Tea Party's fears for the state of the country into one frightening package.

That still-fierce contempt for the president, of course, could provide the sort of energy that will make the Tea Party a potent force in the coming election. But I was not totally convinced as Skocpol and Williamson's talk came to a close. So I asked them why the Tea Party - if it was still so strong - had been unable to produce a Republican nominee more conservative than Mitt Romney.

I found Skocpol's answer somewhat, but not entirely, satisfying. The Tea Party, she argued, is not a monolithic force and could not be expected to coalesce around a single candidate. Indeed the divide between social conservatives and libertarians in the Tea Party ranks, deftly papered over in local meetings, was bound to come to the fore in the voting booth when it came down to a choice between, say, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul.

And on the whole, she said, the Tea Party did succeed in moving the entire field to the right.

Valid points, all. But if the Tea Party can't take control of the Republican presidential primary - where its sway was far more pronounced than it will be come November - is that not a major weakness? Is it not a sign of some significant decline from the Tea Party's peak? If the GOP had nominated its presidential candidate in 2010, can we say with any conviction that it would've picked Romney?

Of course a decline in power is hardly equivalent to irrelevance. And if the grassroots - so vital in electing a stubborn, no-compromise band of freshmen Congressmen in 2010 - can keep that cohort in place, it may be time to consider the Tea Party a long-term force in American politics.  

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