Friday, January 15, 2016

Booknote: The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism

Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-19-983263-7.

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: politics, history, United State politics, U.S. political parties, media
Format: hardcover
Source: My library has this book. 

A lot of what Skocpol and her coauthor write, reporting on their research, confirms what many of us already know about the Tea Party in terms of it being white, older, and extremely conservative. As I have often said, you've got to give the devil his due; the Tea Party members are very good at organizing politically and mobilizing, a lesson the Left seems to consistently ignore at its own peril. However, no matter how genteel the authors portray many of them, the fact that so many of them espouse extremist views and are outright bigots, due in large part to the strong social conservative presence in the party, simply cannot be ignored. Add to this a fairly strong and selfish libertarian presence, which is often at odds with the social conservatives, and the tea partiers do make a fairly toxic element in American politics. What the book does then is provide a mostly objective view of the Tea Party and its members. A strength of the book is that the authors let tea partiers speak for themselves. More often than not, these folks provide the best evidence of why we need a progressive sense of public good and caring for each other in the United States.

On a side note, the book The Elephant in the Room, which I read back in 2009, discusses the tense blend between libertarians and social conservatives in the GOP; some of the insights from that book are applicable here.  If you have read that book, much of what the authors of The Tea Party say on the topic will be familiar ground.

If nothing else, this is a book that serves to understand the rise of the Tea Party in American politics, the kind of people it attracts, and why it remains such a strong influence in the GOP. For progressives who may not be as well informed on the Tea Party, this book makes good basic reading. Skocpol and Williamson lay out where those people are coming from, why they enjoy varying degrees of appeal, and how they play a long term game for right wing power. Progressives who are clueless or complacent need to read this book, then get to work, or risk losing more of the progress we've fought so hard to gain.

Part of the book can be skimmed as the authors can get a bit repetitive on some points. While it does reveal some aspects of the Tea Party that are not commonly known or seen in the media, we also see their rhetoric is firm right wing conservatism in a newer package.

The chapter on billionaires and larger organizations was interesting in revealing the relationships of convenience between the PACs and lobbying groups, desperate to their right wing often extreme messages out, and local tea parties who do not want to be tainted and want to remain "independent" but are often starved for content and substance, even if that content is often inaccurate just as long as it fits their worldview. There is a serious cynicism going on as groups such as FreedomWorks know tea partiers would not readily accept their most radical ideas. Yet tea partiers accept them just as long as such groups keep concepts just vague enough so as not to be unpalatable. More often than not this is not innocence; it's selective understanding often sustained by a heavy degree of selfishness. They've earned their benefits, so everyone else who comes after them be damned. For instance, as long as they can keep their Social Security, which they "earned," they do not care much if those who come after them, "entitled" moochers in their eyes, get it as well. And this is exposed in their own words. The authors' extensive on the ground interviews and research reveal all this. It does so in a straightforward way. There is no need to spin here. The authors simply present the evidence, and the evidence of the Tea Party's toxicity on American politics becomes clear.

The book is also interesting to read in light of how things have turned out over time. For example, as powerful as Glenn Beck was in helping shape an image of the Tea Party for the media and influencing tea partiers, it has to be noted that he no longer works for Fox News. The authors cover Beck's dismissal from Fox News in the final chapter of the book. Howard Kurtz, previously CNN's media critic who pointed out how Fox News practically co-sponsored Tea Party events, took a rightward turn and went to work for Fox News. Events in these instances moved faster than the book's content, which illustrate how swiftly things can turn in media and politics.

Yet as loud as they can be, the authors also revel that they are not as big as the media make them out to be. However, given juggernauts like Fox News backing them, they do remain a dangerous influence. Yet, as the 2015 elections showed in places like Kentucky, the Tea Party can, along with other Right Wing ideologues, still pack a punch. The GOP is still stuck with the Tea Party. The key still remains whether progressives will turn out to vote in 2016 in contrast to their failure to do so in 2015.

The research in the book is documented by ample notes in the back of the book. The book is divided into six chapters that look at topics including who are the Tea Partiers and their beliefs, their relations with PACs and other political groups, the role of the media, and where they stand on American democracy.

Overall, the authors are pretty charitable at times, probably in the interest of politeness. Still, the book gives a pretty clear picture of what the Tea Party really is and stands for; disjointed as Tea Party groups can be, they do all share some core self-centered values in common. If nothing else, a big lesson is to not underestimate them.

For students of American politics and current U.S. politics, this book is essential. Academic libraries will want to acquire this one, especially for students writing on topics such as Obama's presidency, the contemporary Republican Party, and of course the Tea Party. It is not always riveting reading, but in this day, it is necessary reading.

3 out of 5 stars.

Note: Given this is a pretty lengthy post, and that the book just packs so much, I am putting my additional reading notes on a separate post (coming soon). If you are interested in learning more, read that as well.

Also, Skocpol, one of the authors, visited my college recently. You can read my notes from that event here.

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