The past weeks’ showdown in Washington, D.C., has shocked and perplexed some observers. Theda Skocpol was not among them. Skocpol, a veteran Harvard professor, is the author of books on topics ranging from the politics of the U.S. welfare state (“Protecting Soldiers and Mothers”) to the state of grass-roots political engagement (“Diminished Democracy”), and of the definitive social science tome on the Tea Party (“The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” with Vanessa Williamson).
With the immediate debt ceiling/shutdown showdown coming to a close, Salon called up Skocpol Wednesday to discuss how the media misunderstand the Tea Party, how an unpopular movement can move so many members of Congress, and why the right hates Obama’s moderate healthcare law so much. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Has this month shown us anything we didn’t know about the Tea Party?
I think people in mainstream media and D.C. politics kind of wrote the Tea Party off after 2012. They thought, “Well, this isn’t popular anymore, and the Democrats succeeded in defeating the primary goal of Tea Party forces.” But I think that was always misreading what the Tea Party was about. It’s been there all along to keep Republicans from compromising. I think we’ve seen over the past two weeks that they have the ability to just tie up the federal government and put the country at risk, and they don’t show any signs of backing down. And I don’t think they will, even if they’re defeated in this episode.
Frances Fox Piven argued to me that the Tea Party is something old and something new – it has some demographic continuity with the Birchers or Christian right, but also represents a genuine shift motivated in part by fear that white people are losing their privilege in the U.S. Do you agree?
In many ways I do. We actually did the research, both by pulling together national [data] and by doing observations in groups in three regions. There’s no question that at the grass roots, approximately half of all Republican-identifiers who think of themselves as Tea Partyers are a very conservative-minded old group of white people, some of whom do go all the way back to Goldwater and the Birch Society. They are skeptical of the Republican Party as it has been run in recent years. But they both hate and fear the Democratic Party and Obama. We argued in many ways that anger comes from alarm on the part of these older conservatives that they’re losing their country — that’s what they say. That they’re the true Americans, and they’re losing control of American politics. So that’s the grass-roots component.
Now there is a somewhat new development at the top. There’s no sense in which the grass-roots protests are a fake, or a creation of big money forces. But we have seen the unleashing of billionaire-backed, highly ideological groups that are outside the Republican apparatus, itself symbolized by people like Dick Armey. And much more recently, by Jim DeMint giving up a Senate position to move to Heritage, and turn Heritage into a much more hard-edged political machine. These guys are calling the shots about what happens in Congress. And that’s why we saw the amazing thing [Tuesday] of Heritage Action, under DeMint, indicating that it would score a vote for the leaders’ proposals negatively — within 20 minutes, [Republican leaders] switched. And that’s because they fear now the aroused grass-roots activists, the people who paid attention and vote in Republican primaries. And equally, they fear money coming to challenge them as ideologically impure if they vote the wrong way on key legislation.
So it’s a pincers movement – top-down [and] bottom-up. It really has taken control over the governing part of the Republican Party. It’s probably got less effectiveness in elections.
“Pincers”? How so?taking levers away from the Republican Party and by weakening the leverage of the Tea Party within the GOP.
I think it’s way too soon to conclude that. There’s a huge difference in the electorate that turns out in the midterms. If they do it again next year — which I think they will, at least some of it – it could change the equation in November 2014 a little bit. But let’s get real here.
I mean, you’re going to have to talk about taking the majority away from Republicans in the House of Representatives. You have to talk about getting rid of the filibuster check in the Senate. And I don’t think many liberal commentators are paying any attention to the very important developments that have occurred across so many American states where very extreme Republicans have supermajorities at the moment. So that’s all got to be chipped away at, because as long as a fired-up and morally dogmatic minority, backed by ideological money, can manipulate legislatures, it can choke things up. Their goal is to show that Obama and the Democrats can’t govern, and unfortunately they have some of the levers to do that.
To what extent do you think that the tactics Republicans have taken up show something about our political institutions’ ability to work in the face of what some would call more parliamentary tactics?
Well, I don’t think this is parliamentary. I think this is truly extremist. The filibuster rules, of course, are rules, and they can change. And the ability of one or two senators to hold up everything may be something that even the minority will want to change, because you know, Sen. Ted Cruz is really a cruise missile. He has unsettled Senate Republicans plenty.
American institutions do not in any way require that the same party or the same faction controls the presidency and both houses of Congress. And so that creates openings for obstructionists to really grind everything to a halt. We’ve seen Republicans, as they fear that they can’t make it in majority elections, turn to creating new uses for old institutional mechanisms and rules. That’s what’s going on right now.
A decade ago, you observed a long-term decline in American civic participation and the groups that used to foster it. What does the Tea Party mean for that?
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Republican Party committees can’t necessarily keep themselves at all levels from being taken over or end-runned by Tea Party forces. The leadership in the Senate, [and] especially in the House, can’t control their various actions, can’t use a combination of carrots and sticks to put things together. It means even that in elections, Republicans can’t control the message they’re sending out. You can declare that you’re going to have outreach to women and minorities, and the next day Rush Limbaugh can say god-knows-what. People can show up at the U.S. Capitol with a Confederate flag in front of the White House. Things are kind of out of control.
The Confederate flag – is there some larger significance in that popping up when and where it did?memo in 1993 on Clinton healthcare. They’re worried about filling in one of the big holes in the American welfare state, and creating a positive relationship between the government and working-age people that will make it hard for Republicans to win elections or proceed with their preference: to roll back Social Security and Medicare, let alone another big piece of the American welfare state.
Another thing you’ll hear from Democrats is that every past program like this has been controversial at the time, and then becomes popular to the point Republicans won’t even admit they want to get rid of it. Is there reason to expect the same here?