Live From America, Tea-Partiers Speak

Dec. 30 (Bloomberg) — Constitution talk routinely bubbles up at discussions in Tea Party gatherings. References to the Constitution are used to justify positions and render particular views incontestable.

But some parts of the Constitution are favored over others. During 2010 and 2011, we attended dozens of Tea Party meetings in several states, from Massachusetts to Arizona, and gathered research on hundreds more. In a telling aside during a question- and-answer period with members of the York County Constitutionalists in North Berwick, Maine, one speaker mentioned that he might prefer to limit the amendments to the Constitution to the Bill of Rights and omit the rest altogether.

What’s striking about Tea Partiers and the Constitution, however, isn’t so much what they think about what it says. It’s their conviction that it was written for, and should be read by, average Americans like them. “It’s amazing how quickly the Constitution became a second language,” said Sandra Asimov of Virginia. This attitude, in turn, affects their views of politics, government and America itself.

Many Tea Party members are Protestant evangelical Christians who have transferred the skills and approaches of Bible study directly to the Constitution. Tea Parties across the country participate in Constitution study groups, and in such gatherings tackle the original texts themselves, although other commentaries and books are also favored.

Ritual Gestures

A persistent refrain in Tea Party circles is scorn for politicians who fail to show suitable reverence for, and mastery of, America’s founding documents. Catering to Tea Party supporters, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives opened the 112th Congress by staging a public reading of the Constitution (though omitting touchy passages about slaves). Tea Partiers told us that they appreciated this ritual gesture, though it didn’t dampen their suspicions of politicians.

Tea Party skepticism about elected officials and experts is almost uniform among members. To guard against possible bamboozlement — and to demonstrate their own virtue and skill as informed democratic citizens — Tea Party members arm themselves for confrontations with their legislative representatives by reading particular bills themselves, and many groups have formed subcommittees to track legislation. With a chortle, Tea Party interviewees repeatedly offered their own stories of seeing an elected representative caught in a mis statement by a Tea Party activist.

It would be a mistake, however, to equate the Tea Party’s skepticism of politics with a hatred of government. All Americans have ambivalent, even contradictory, attitudes toward government. Large majorities of Americans say they approve of less government, yet they also favor public education, subsidized health care, veterans’ benefits, Social Security and many other specific government activities. That Americans are, simultaneously, ideological conservatives and operational liberals has been documented for as long as social scientists have been able to probe and measure public opinion.

Tea Partiers are said to be different. Observers portray them as firm and consistent in pure opposition to taxes, big government, handouts to business, expensive social programs and intrusive regulations. But a lazy conflation of elite and popular strands of Tea Partyism is at work in such claims. Professional free-market advocates like Dick Armey, who say they speak for grassroots members of the Tea Party, spout their views about cutting taxes, privatizing Social Security and sweeping away regulations. Every elite faction in and around the GOP imputes its preferences to grassroots Tea Partiers.

Out-of-Control Spending

In our interviews and group discussions, however, we found Tea Party members to be quite inconsistent about government. At the abstract level, all of them decry big government, out-of- control public spending and ballooning deficits. But when governmental specifics come into view, it’s a different story. Tea Partiers aren’t opposed to all kinds of regulation or big tax-supported spending. Rank-and-file Tea Party participants evaluate regulations and spending very differently, depending on who or what is regulated, and whether those who benefit from various kinds of public spending are considered hard workers or freeloaders.

The current Tea Party distinction between freeloaders and hardworking taxpayers has undertones that distinguish it from a simple reiteration of the long-standing American creed. In Tea Party eyes, undeserving people aren’t defined simply by a tenuous attachment to the labor market or receipt of unearned government handouts. Worthiness is a cultural category, closely tied to certain racially and ethnically tinged assumptions about American society in the early 21st century. Tea Party resistance to giving more to people deemed undeserving is more than just an argument about taxes and spending. It’s a heartfelt cry about where they fear their country may be headed.

Tea Party worries about racial and ethnic minorities and overly entitled young people signal fear about generational social change in America. To outside observers, Tea Partiers often seem disproportionately angry, but it’s a mistake to assess emotional responses as if they were policy statements. When Tea Partiers talk about their rights, they’re asserting a desire to live again in the America they remember — and to pass it on to their children and grandchildren.

A meeting in Tempe, Arizona, featured a speaker who recounted the kind of stories that lead sensationalistic local TV news programs, emphasizing nightmarish scenarios of home invasion and rape. This is why, she said, all women should always carry concealed firearms. Then she patted her right hip: Following her own advice, she was carrying a concealed weapon during her talk. In the minds of Tea Party activists, the American present — and especially the future — is often more than worrisome; it can be downright terrifying.

Coming Collapse

Yes, Tea Partiers speak constantly about an out-of-control federal budget deficit and the coming doom they think it portends for the United States. They are concerned that U.S. deficits might be addressed in part with tax increases, which they imagine would require people like them to help pay for unfair social spending. But the fiscal question in the Tea Party imagination is more than just a redistributive matter. In the telling of many Tea Partiers, the ballooning federal deficit merges into a general sense of a coming collapse for America.

One might imagine the changes that worry Tea Partiers to be primarily economic. But Tea Party members rarely emphasize economic concerns. The nightmare of societal decline is usually painted in cultural hues, and the villains in the picture are freeloading social groups, liberal politicians, bossy professionals, big government and the news media.

Forces conspire, an Arizona retiree, Stella Fisher says, “to the breaking down of conservative society.” Kids today, she says, think “it’s not so important that you get married, even if you have a baby with somebody.”

Members of the Tea Party peer out at a fast-changing society and worry. The public image of the Tea Party is one of anger. But in our experience, the more typical emotion is fear.

(Theda Skocpol is a professor of government and sociology at Harvard University. Vanessa Williamson is a doctoral candidate in government and social policy at Harvard. This is an excerpt from their forthcoming book, “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.” to be published Jan. 2 by Oxford University Press.)