01 abril 2013

"They’re probably going to make Barack Obama’s life miserable for the whole rest of his presidency"

Theda Skocpol, Political Scientist, is a professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University.
The article below is a product of the Harvard Political Review.
Author: Rachael Hanna.

Theda Skocpol is a professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University, where she focuses on both comparative politics and American politics. Recently, she published a comprehensive study, The Tea Party Movement and the Reshaping of Republican Conservatism, with Harvard graduate student Vanessa Williamson.

Harvard Political Review: When George W. Bush was leaving office, the Republican Party’s downward spiral really became apparent, but with the economic downturn and eruption of the Tea Party movement, there was a spike in 2010 for Republicans. However, based on the research you did on the Tea Party, it doesn’t look like this is a long-term swing in momentum for the GOP.

Theda Skocpol: Vanessa Williamson and I have just published an afterword to the paperback edition, which just came out, and we don’t think that the consensus that you find among many D.C. journalists that the Tea Party is over is actually correct. First of all, there are about 70 House Republican who were elected in 2010, re-elected in 2012, and are now in pretty safe districts and they are Tea Party minded people, who don’t want to compromise, who are happy to run the country off an economic cliff—they’re doing it right now—and so they’re there, and they’re probably going to make Barack Obama’s life miserable for the whole rest of his presidency.

From the point of view of many Republicans in office, they’re worried about the combination of grassroots activism on the right and big money funders sending in money to fund challengers for the right. Even though the Tea Party label is no longer popular with most Americans, and even though active participation in the Tea Party is declining, they still have a very strong amount of leverage on the Republican Party. And the Republican Party has a lot of ability to change governance at the state and at the national levels.

HPR: Do you think that there is a way for the Republican Party to harness the momentum and energy of the Tea Party and what the Tea Party represents in a more organized way?

TS: No, that’s part of what we argued and what we found in our research. The Tea Party is not one organization. It’s a bunch of different forces, and the way to think about it is this: its funders don’t hesitate to challenge even established Republican office holders from the right and its grassroots people are so angry at both Democrats and established Republicans who compromise with them that they turn out and they don’t do what they’re told. Tea Party people are ornery—they’re sort of appealing in that way—they don’t do what they’re told to do. And Karl Rove telling them that they shouldn’t support certain kinds of people calls them to support those people even more.

HPR: In your research on the Tea Party you’ve said their major concerns are immigration reform and the deficit and spending.

TS: Yes, although the Tea Party consists of people who are on Social Security and Medicare. What we discovered in interviews is that they didn’t really want to cut those programs. They want to cut spending programs for low-income people and young people.

HPR: With the Tea Party making that distinction for themselves, if not for the general public, between the types of government aid programs they support and don’t support, is that something that can at all help the Republican Party, or does making that distinction hurt the party?

TS: Well, it’s a long-standing theme among conservative populists—this sort of slightly racially tinged resentment of government doing things for the “other” people, the ones who aren’t the hard working people. It creates dilemmas for Republicans, though.

For one thing, the Tea Party isn’t even of one mind on this. Elite Tea Party forces are much more likely to favor privatizing Social Security and Medicare. That would be your “Paul Ryans.”  We saw Romney sign on to a lot of those ideas. But, at the grassroots level, the big issues are no spending on moochers and cracking down on undocumented immigrants. One of the things we’re seeing now is the political battle play out in ways that drive wedges inside the Republican Party, even among the ultraconservatives because I don’t think they agree on immigration. I don’t think that elite, free-market ideological forces are really against immigration reform; I think they’d like to see some. But at the grassroots, that’s a very hard sell.

HPR: Social issues have also become a major problem for Republicans. We’ve definitely seen, and it has been really visible in the last several years, that a lot of the country, on issues like gay marriage and abortion, is leaning more and more to the left.

TS: I mean, on gay marriage, it’s just astonishing. It’s completely a generational thing. You can really look across all segments of the population. You look at young Evangelical Christians, at young people in the military. Yes, maybe they’re not quite as open to gay marriage as say a liberal, Harvard undergraduate, but they’re much more open to it than the older people in their category. This is basically a complete loser for the GOP, and you’re seeing a fair number of senior Republicans now saying, “we should just concede.” You even have some saying, and these are more the Libertarian types, “marriage is a conservative thing whether it’s gays or not”, which is a perfectly sensible position. But, it won’t be acceptable to rural, Christian conservatives. They don’t look at it that way.

HPR: Even if there was a coherent leadership in place in the GOP, it wouldn’t mean that that leadership would have the authority to tell someone not to run, but perhaps the representatives would be more in tune with doing what is right for the party?

TS: Well, the Republican Party, at least until about the last eight years or so, was unusually disciplined. I don’t know quite exactly how this happened, but people used to wait their turn to run for office, and they would take these signals that were given, and they’re not being given anymore. It’s wide open at this point, and it’s also drifted very far to the right on a lot of issues. It’s not working, so we’re going to see quite a lot of drama. It’s going to be really interesting to watch, but it’s probably going to be messy for quite a while. I don’t think this will get resolved quickly. The other big problem the Republican Party suffers from, which even the Democrats don’t suffer from during their down periods, is a lot of the people who hold sway with their mass base are these people on Fox News. Now, they’re entertainers. They’re trying to make money, and they’re trying to promote themselves and create controversie. And Rush Limbaugh, the more colorful he is, the more likely he is to get attention. But that is not helping the Republican Party. It doesn’t help the Republican Party that Rush Limbaugh is their face, and they’ve had that problem for a while now.

This interview has been edited and condensed
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