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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Christopher S. Parker, Matt Barreto, Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America

Welcome Christopher S. Parker (University of Washington) (Scholars Strategy Network) (Twitter), Matt Barreto (University of Washington) (Latino Decisions) and Host Anthony DiMaggio (Truthout) (Author, Rise of the Tea Party, and Crashing The Tea Party)

Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America

In Change They Can’t Believe in: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America, Christopher Parker and Matt Barreto have authored what is sure to be one of the most authoritative studies of the Tea Party phenomenon. It is a book worth reading by anyone who wants to understand the values and philosophy driving right wing and Republican politics today. The heart of Parker and Barreto’s work could be summarized by this quote, describing the motives driving Tea Party true believers:

Support for the Tea Party captures the perceived existential threat to the mainly white, middle aged, middle class, largely male slice of America represented by the Obama presidency. Support for the Tea Party, in short, represents reactionary conservatism. Reactionary conservatism is a predisposition motivated by the anxiety associated with the perception that real Americans are losing their country (p. 126).

The book is sure to draw huge controversy for its thesis, but then again, any relevant book relevant to these polarizing times certainly should.

The 2008 election of President Barack Obama really was historic, not simply because of the emergence of our first African American president, but because of the tremendous backlash from reactionary elements of America and their opposition to the change that the President symbolized. We should not see the emergence of the Tea Party, almost immediately following Obama’s taking office, as coincidental. The group, the authors argue, is the most modern example in history of reactionary political and social politics, following in the footsteps of previous social movements such as the John Birch Society and the Ku Klux Klan. The association between the Tea Party and the KKK is sure to draw much ire from the American right, but Parker and Barreto present evidence that this comparison is apt at least in terms of the racial resentment of both groups.

Drawing on Richard Hofstadter’s classic study, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, the authors maintain that Tea Party supporters are motivated in significant part by conspiratorial views framing the Obama presidency as committed to destroying the American way of life as they know it. More specifically, they argue that group members suffer from a paranoia often seen in reactionary movements in which “perceived social change” is militantly opposed “as an attempt to subvert” the privilege of dominant socio-demographic groups in society (p. 4). These groups would include those in which the Tea Party draws its core support, including older, white, male, highly educated, higher income, conservative, Republican, and “born-again” Evangelical groups.

Parker and Barreto find through comprehensive examination of the content from Tea Party websites and from public opinion survey data that Tea Party true believers are significantly more extreme in their attitudes than mainstream conservatives. Tea Party online sites are more likely to invoke conspiratorial discourse than mainstream Americans or more mainstream conservative online media. Furthermore, Tea Party supporters are more likely to accept negative stereotypes, and support discriminatory policies against minority groups, including Hispanic individuals, African Americans, and gay and lesbian individuals, among others. They are motivated by a fixation on preserving their “social dominance” as members of relatively privileged socio-demographic groups, compared to less affluent individuals and groups in the United States.

Tea Party supporters are also distinct in their definition of patriotism. They are more likely to reject egalitarian definitions of patriotism that place “the interest of the community before self-interest,” in favor of a definition embracing the “unfettered pursuit of self-interested goals.” In other words, Tea Partiers appear to embrace a highly individualistic view of patriotism that is consistent with reactionary politics in the modern era.

In explaining why all of this matters, the authors conclude that the Tea Party has played a significant role in further polarizing American politics, as supporters pressure Republicans in Congress to take extreme stances against compromise in the legislative process and in pulling the Republican Party further to the right. They also conclude that the Tea Party’s “fear and anxiety tend to fuel policy preferences (racial profiling and refusal to compromise could potentially be seen as examples) that militate against social and economic progress. This is difficult to reconcile with the love for American that the Far Right often professes.” My interpretation of this statement is that modern democracy requires the embrace of diversity within society and the respecting differences of opinion across the political spectrum. By celebrating intolerance of compromise and conspiratorially painting political opponents as the enemies of freedom, the Tea Party is imposing a reactionary roadblock in a time period when most Americans are increasingly embracing concepts such as equal rights and displaying considerable openness to the rethinking of racist stereotypes and discriminatory policies.

Interested general readers and academics will find much to appreciate in Parker and Barreto’s social science based analysis of the Tea Party phenomenon. The study is a careful empirical effort to describe the driving forces behind the Tea Party. I find the central thesis of the book – that the Tea Party is driven by a reactionary rejection of the ongoing changes in America – to be quite convincing and born out by the evidence presented here and elsewhere. All readers will not agree with every point made in the work, but I strongly recommend that all those interested in the Tea Party and its social significance pick up this book. At a time when passion sometimes clouds sound scientific assessments of political issues, this book offers a valuable analysis of the changes going on in modern America.

Christopher Parker is a professor of Social Justice and Political Science at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is also the author of the book, Fighting for Democracy: Black Veterans and the Struggle Against White Supremacy in the Postwar South (Princeton University Press, 2009).

Matt Barreto is also a professor of political science at the University of Washington, director of the Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race, and Sexuality, and author of the book Ethnic Clues: The Role of Shared Ethnicity in Latino Political Participation (University of Michigan Press, 2012).


[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]

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