Who Is The Tea Party? There's No Short Answer

Tuesday's primary elections saw the impact of a relatively new force in politics: the Tea Party. Morning Edition takes a closer look at this diverse, amorphous movement. Jonathan Rauch of the National Journal gives Linda Wertheimer a rundown of what the Tea Party really is, and what its decentralized fluid structure means for its future.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

We're reporting throughout the program on the primaries held in several states yesterday. And one of the themes was the strong showing of several candidates backed by the Tea Party. In Delaware, one of those candidates, Christine O'Donnell, won the Republican Senate primary nomination. She defeated Mike Castle, a nine-term congressman who had the support of the Republican establishment. And in New York, Carl Paladino, a blunt-talking multimillionaire with Tea Party backing, beat a former congressman, Rick Lazio, for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

All of which make this a good time to take a closer look at the Tea Party movement. Tomorrow, two Tea Party members debate what the movement stands for.

WERTHEIMER: Today, we're joined by Jonathan Rauch, contributing editor at the National Journal and guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. Jonathan, welcome.

Mr. JONATHAN RAUCH (National Journal): Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Let's start with an obvious question that I guess doesn't have an easy answer. Who is the Tea Party? Is there a short answer?

Mr. RAUCH: No, there's no short answer and that's one reason this phenomenon is so baffling to journalists like me. We keep looking for the leader of the Tea Party. It's a fantastically decentralized movement. It consists of basically anyone out there who calls themselves a Tea Partier, and it's pretty hard to generalize.

WERTHEIMER: Do you have any idea how big it is?

Mr. RAUCH: Well, they claim, depending on how you read the polls, you know, 17 million Americans, but that can be anyone who's ever answered a question saying they're sympathetic to the Tea Party.

We know that the largest of the Tea Party national groups, which is called the Tea Party Patriots, has almost 3,000 local organizations that are registered on their website. And if you figure that's anywhere from, you know, 20 to 100 people per organization, you can do the math. We're talking about at a minimum, tens of thousands of activists.

WERTHEIMER: What do you know about the Tea Partier? Who is that person?

Mr. RAUCH: Tea Partiers are white, bright, and right, on average. The minority presence is relatively small. I don't think that's because they're racist. I don't think they are. I think it's because they're conservative and conservatives tend to attract more white voters than minority voters. They are bright, they're well-educated.

Finally, they are many of them debranded Republicans. That is to say, they look and talk and sound like Republicans. They often vote like Republicans, but many of them think of themselves as independents. That's one reason they're so unafraid to vote for Republican candidates in primaries who might lose to Democrats. They say it's not about party, and in their minds it really isn't.

WERTHEIMER: Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Tea Party is that it seemed to appear suddenly, that it's very modern in that it uses the Internet and apps and free conference calling, as you point out in an article in the National Journal, to do some very, very up-to-date political organizing.

Mr. RAUCH: You know, this movement could not have started as recently as, say, 10 years ago, before social networking, before free conference calls. I just finished doing a deep dive for National Journal on the Tea Party Patriots. They're not the group you hear the most about, because they're not out there trying to swing elections and dropping money into political races.

But in a way they're much larger and much more radical. They're trying to build a decentralized, headless, but national organization with no hierarchy at all. And they just do things. It's like a hive or a network. They call it open source structure. So if you hear people say that Tea Partiers are troglodytes, think again.

WERTHEIMER: But ultimately, do you think that not having a head means that it'll be difficult for them to be of service to their issues?

Mr. RAUCH: It poses very big challenges. For instance, who defines you? Tea Partiers don't want anyone else speaking for them. Their view is that every Tea Partier is his or her own spokesperson.

MONGAGNE: Kind of libertarian in that way, I guess.

Mr. RAUCH: Exactly. They're trying to live by their libertarian ideals. The trouble with that is what happens when some nut raises some kind of a crazy sign or racist sign at a rally and claims to be a Tea Partier and there's no one who can speak for a national organization and say this person doesn't speak for us and they're excommunicated?

Or how do you cut a deal? If you're actually trying to influence the passage of legislation to reform things in Washington, you need a seat at the table, you need to make bargains. That's how the system works. With the Tea Party, there's no one to bargain with because there's no one in charge. And Tea Partiers will tell you, well, we're trying to do something different here. We reject that whole model of the world where people do deals in back rooms.

MONTAGNE: Can they define what something different is?

Mr. RAUCH: Yes, that was what turned out to me to be most interesting and to be hardest to get my mind around. The most important thing that they will tell you they're trying to do is a cultural movement, not a political movement. They're tiring to reeducate the whole country, change the way Americans think about their relationship to government. Move us back to a more self-reliant, independent sort of watch dog against government mentality.

They will tell you if you just try to change an election result, you have to come back every two years and do it again. If you can change the hearts and minds of the people, make them more skeptical of big government, then you do that forever.

WERTHEIMER: You know, you can kind of see this happening two ways. You could sort of say that this is a very energized version of the conservative side of the Republican Party, or you can see it that this could be something that could just fractionate the Republican Party, tear it into fiscal Republicans and social Republicans, and whatever there is left of old mainline Republicans.

Mr. RAUCH: It could do both and indeed it already is doing both. That's the paradox of this movement. The people involved are very fiscally conservative. They are not afraid to challenge moderate Republicans and they are not afraid, if necessary, to elect Democrats if that's what they have to do to make their point. But remember, their goal in their mind is not fundamentally about taking power. It's about changing the way Americans think about politics.

WERTHEIMER: I still am having difficulty with the idea that you could do that without a leader.

Mr. RAUCH: Most movements do or eventually get one. And indeed, when I talked to sociologists about it they said this is very hard to sustain because you're trying to do two contradictory things at once. On the one hand, you're trying to be radically decentralized and leaderless. On the other hand, you're trying to have a national impact.

I talked to one sociologist, David Meyer, at U.C. Irvine, who said, you know, in his opinion the Tea Party's influence is peaking right about now, in the current Republican primaries and that one of two things will happen. Either they'll dissolve into a bunch of kind of local groups and disputes without much concentration or focus, or in five years time they'll be a Washington interest group with a CEO and a staff and a press person who I'll call up to get quotes from. Tea Partiers, when confronted with that, say, well, he's a traditionalist, he would say that, wouldn't he.

WERTHEIMER: Jonathan Rauch, thank you very much.

Mr. RAUCH: Thank you. It's a privilege.

WERTHEIMER: Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor at the National Journal and guest scholar at the Brookings Institution.

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