By Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson
Newt Gingrich’s brief turn as presidential front-runner was only the latest paroxysm of a tumultuous Republican primary season. What’s going on? Tensions within the Tea Party help explain the volatility of the Republican primary campaign, as candidates seek to appeal to competing elements of the Tea Party with varying success.
For our new book, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, we interviewed Tea Party activists across the country over a sixteen-month period and found that the movement is not the monolith it is sometimes portrayed as. The conservative political upsurge has grassroots and elite components with divergent interests and goals. Mitt Romney, no favorite of the Tea Party grassroots, is currently pitching his candidacy to Tea Party elites, while Newt Gingrich and other contenders are vying for the rank-and-file Tea Party supporters.
We learned about grassroots Tea Party groups by attending their meetings, interviewing active members and reading hundreds of their websites and message boards. In early 2011, these Tea Partiers had no consistent favorite for the Republican nominee, supporting everyone from Ron Paul to Mike Huckabee to Donald Trump, but they did have one goal in mind for 2012: beating Barack Obama. As one Tea Party member we met in Virginia put it, “we have to get Obama out. Obama and the Communists he’s surrounded himself with.”
In recent weeks, Gingrich has reached out to these grassroots Tea Party voters, older white middle-class conservatives who remember him from his glory days as an insurgent Democrat slayer. Gingrich’s aggressive style and blistering critiques of the Democrats resonate with Tea Party voters. Gingrich has accused Democrats of socialist tendencies for decades; as early as 1984, he claimed that a Democratic member of the House of Representatives was distributing “communist propaganda.”
But Gingrich has also tapped into what we identified as Tea Partiers’ most fundamental concern: their belief that hardworking American taxpayers are being forced to foot the bill for undeserving freeloaders, particularly immigrants, the poor and the young. Young people “just feel like they are entitled,” one member of the Massachusetts Tea Party told us. A Virginia interviewee said that today’s youth “have lost the value of work.”
These views were occasionally tinged with ethnic stereotypes about immigrants “stealing” from tax-funded programs, or minorities with a “plantation mentality.” When Gingrich talks about “inner-city” children having “no habits of working,” he is appealing to a widely held sentiment among the Tea Party faithful.
What’s more, Gingrich’s comparatively humane stance on immigration reform — offering immigrants a path to legal status with the approval of local community members — is more palatable to Tea Party members than one might expect. First, it reduces federal authority over a key Tea Party issue, a policy that appeals to the “states’ rights” conservatives who fill the seats at Tea Party meetings. Crucially, Gingrich is not offering, as Rick Perry did, taxpayer-funded benefits to unauthorized immigrants, a policy described by one Tea Party activist we spoke to as money wasted on “moochers.”
Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard University, and Vanessa Williamson, a graduate student in government and social policy at Harvard, are the authors of the new book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.