Galston: The Tea Party and the GOP Crackup
Ted Cruz and his followers represent Jacksonian America: angry and in full revolt against a new elite.
William A. Galston
Oct. 15, 2013 6:52 p.m. ET
More than a decade ago, before the post-9/11 national fervor set in, Walter Russell Mead published an insightful essay on the persistent "Jacksonian tradition" in American society. Jacksonians, he argued, embrace a distinctive code, whose key tenets include self-reliance, individualism, loyalty and courage.
Jacksonians care as passionately about the Second Amendment as Jeffersonians do about the First. They are suspicious of federal power, skeptical about do-gooding at home and abroad; they oppose federal taxes but favor benefits such as Social Security and Medicare that they regard as earned. Jacksonians are anti-elitist; they believe that the political and moral instincts of ordinary people are usually wiser than those of the experts and that, as Mr. Mead wrote, "while problems are complicated, solutions are simple."That is why the Jacksonian hero defies the experts and entrenched elites and "dares to say what the people feel" without caring in the least what the liberal media will say about him. (Think Ted Cruz. )
The tea party is Jacksonian America, aroused, angry and above all fearful, in full revolt against a new elite—backed by the new American demography—that threatens its interests and scorns its values.
This is more than a columnist's speculation. Stan Greenberg, a Democratic survey researcher whose focus groups with Macomb County Reagan Democrats in Michigan transformed political discourse in the 1980s, has recently released a similar study of the tea party. Supporters of the tea party, he finds, see President Obama as anti-Christian, and the president's expansive use of executive authority evokes charges of "tyranny." Mr. Obama, they believe, is pursuing a conscious strategy of building political support by increasing Americans' dependence on government. A vast expansion of food stamps and disability programs and the push for immigration reform are key steps down that road.
But ObamaCare is the tipping point, the tea party believes. Unless the law is defunded, the land of limited government, individual liberty and personal responsibility will be gone forever, and the new America, dominated by dependent minorities who assert their "rights" without accepting their responsibilities, will have no place for people like them.
For the tea party, ObamaCare is much more than a policy dispute; it is an existential struggle.
According to two benchmark surveys by the New York Times NYT +1.81% and the Public Religion Research Institute, tea-party supporters espouse an ensemble of conservative beliefs with special intensity. Fifty-eight percent think that minorities get too much attention from government, and 65% view immigrants as a burden on the country. Most of the respondents see President Obama as someone who doesn't understand them and doesn't share their values. In their eyes, he's an extreme liberal whose policies consistently favor the poor. In fact, 92% believe that he is moving the country toward socialism.
Many frustrated liberals, and not a few pundits, think that people who share these beliefs must be downscale and poorly educated. The New York Times survey found the opposite. Only 26% of tea-party supporters regard themselves as working class, versus 34% of the general population; 50% identify as middle class (versus 40% nationally); and 15% consider themselves upper-middle class (versus 10% nationally). Twenty-three percent are college graduates, and an additional 14% have postgraduate training, versus 15% and 10%, respectively, for the overall population. Conversely, only 29% of tea-party supporters have just a high-school education or less, versus 47% for all adults.
Although some tea-party supporters are libertarian, most are not. The Public Religion Research Institute found that fully 47% regard themselves as members of the Christian right, and 55% believe that America is a Christian nation today—not just in the past. On hot-button social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, tea partiers are aligned with social conservatives. Seventy-one percent of tea-party supporters regard themselves as conservatives.
Nor, finally, is the tea party an independent outside force putting pressure on Republicans, according to the survey. Fully 76% of its supporters either identify with or lean toward the Republican Party. Rather, they are a dissident reform movement within the party, determined to move it back toward true conservatism after what they see as the apostasies of the Bush years and the outrages of the Obama administration.
Many tea-party supporters are small businessmen who see taxes and regulations as direct threats to their livelihood. Unlike establishment Republicans who see potential gains from government programs such as infrastructure funding, these tea partiers regard most government spending as a deadweight loss. Because many of them run low-wage businesses on narrow margins, they believe that they have no choice but to fight measures, such as ObamaCare, that reduce their flexibility and raise their costs—measures to which large corporations with deeper pockets can adjust.
It's no coincidence that the strengthening influence of the tea party is driving a wedge between corporate America and the Republican Party. It's hard to see how the U.S. can govern itself unless corporate America pushes the Republican establishment to fight back against the tea party—or switches sides.