Monday, August 22, 2011

Primary Characteristics of the Tea Party Movement

By way of TalkingPointsMemo, a recent article in Context, a quarterly magazine on sociology, discusses the fundamental cultural characteristics of the Tea Party movement.  These are, according to TPM, "Authoritarianism, Fear of Change, Libertarianism, and Nativism [or
'negative attitudes toward immigrants and immigration']".

I know the first two authors, Andrew Perrin and Steven Tepper, not personally but I'm familiar with some of their work.  Steven is Associate Director of The Curb Center at Vanderbilt. They're both well respected in many ways. I don't know the other two authors, but I'm sure they're solid too.

Both of these departments are also strong in the work on culture.  UNC is traditionally a quantitative school, but with sophistication and nuance.  Vanderbilt is, and has been for a long time, a powerhouse in the work on the production of culture, or -to over simplify- how different social institutions inform, coerce, and control the process of creativity (usually applied to art and music).

In interpreting the result of studies like these you have to be careful not to expect all individuals to show these defining characteristics.  Averages, fundamentals, trends in thinking, groups of ideologies, cultural characteristics, are used to construct a core or ideal type of a group.  Don't expect everybody to represent the ideal type.  Just like if the average age for someone living in the U.S. is say, 48, not everybody you come in contact with will be 48.  48 represents one way to think about a group of people, not all the single, individuals within that group.

Also, however, don't be so quick to dismiss one person who identifies as a Tea Partier but denies any of these as somehow evidence that these findings are total fabrications.  There's no doubt something real going on here.  These group-level findings are no surprise to anyone who pays attention.  But a sample of one or two, perhaps angry or defensive respondents (collected at a rally perhaps) does not equal supporting evidence (there are a million methodological issues here).

As far as ideological consistency, and maybe the authors give more detail on this,  don't expect to find it among anyone.  People are busy and stubborn, many don't have the time nor the desire to think through, debate or whatever, the merits of an argument or line of thinking (which of course, can be a problem for any way of thinking).

We should also not think of the four elements of the Tea Party Movement as all equal to one quarter of the cultural characteristics.  These concepts have depth and are interrelated in complex ways.  Fear, for example, is a more complex, deeper concept.  I would hypothesize that fear is a primary factor explaining Libertarianism.  Think 50 years of a cold war that constructed a villainous state entity as a national evil, plus the whole Iran/ middle east thing going on.  Plus, the way similar narratives constructed urban blacks and Hispanics? Then, take into consideration that, if I recall correctly, most self-identified Tea Partiers are baby boomers and older (and therefore some generational/age things coming into play-maybe affecting the Authoritarianism?) There's your Libertarianism and a collective identity that for many, took the form of nativism.

The article in Context is likely based of a journal article or book that was either recently published or will be soon.  Here's a link to a podcast in which Steven talks about this research.

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