Skocpol vs. Fukuyama on the Tea-Party: Political Sociology Grudge Match

Excuse the over-dramatic title, I just thought it was interesting that Fukuyama (to whom this blog seems addicted) and Theda Skocpol (one of the most prominent US political sociologists and one of the foremost theorists of social revolutions) have both weighed into debates over the Tea-Party and its significance. In fairness, Fukuyama makes his contribution to the debate in an interview with a news weekly whereas Skocpol has been engaged in a detailed empirical study of the Tea-Partiers with her colleague Vanessa Williams. Still, the contrasts are interesting.

Fukuyama (p1 p2), for example, identifies the Tea-Partiers as being young, enthusiastic and grass-roots – rejecting the idea that the Koch brothers or whoever are behind the movement. He is puzzled, however, why the Tea-Partiers seem to be organising against their own economic interests by agitating policies which benefit ‘elites they should despise’. His suggestion is that the movement has tapped into a deep strain of scepticism towards government and hostility towards ‘elites’ of any stripe. Like in his recent book, Fukuyama sees political culture as perhaps the most important determining factor in the different paths societies take.

However, as I tried to suggest in a previous post, I think it’s too simple to see the Tea-Partiers as straightforwardly mobilizing against their own interests. If we do so we either have to  draw on ideas of ‘false consciousness’ and assume they are hoodwinked (dismissed in an out of hand fashion by Fukuyama as a conspiracy theory) or we have to hand-wave by saying that culture provides the explanation. But there are different ways actors can understand their own interests, they might attach a strong importance to their relative rather than absolute well-being. This might just be what motivates Tea-Partiers, fear that the distance between them and those beneath them might be eroding due to the actions of Obama and the federal government. Perhaps downward mobility of the middle-class and upward mobility of lower-classes frightens and angers them.

The grey guards

Interestingly, Skocpol actually rejects the idea that Tea-Partiers are organising against their economic interests and suggests that they are fighting for very specific material interests and values (unfortunately I haven’t had the chance to read her book, I’m going on a few reviews and the recent articles she has published to expand on her and Williams’ thesis). Like Fukuyama she sees them as a grass-roots organisation with a strong sense of their political goals and what they want to achieve. However, her research rejects the idea that the organisation is a young movement – rather it is a movement of the middle-aged suburban middle class. They aren’t against all government spending, they’re very pro government programmes which benefit people like them and very anti programmes benefiting undeserving people (the young, migrants, inner-city groups – yes, that’s a euphemism).  In a Washington Post article Skocpol and Williams write:

Tea Party activists are not uniformly opposed to government social programs, however. Our interviewees were very anxious that Social Security and Medicare be maintained. “I’ve been working since I was 16 years old, and I do feel like I should someday reap the benefit. I’m not looking for a handout. I’m looking for a pay out of what I paid into,” one Tea Party member explained.

As Skocpol notes:

After all, tea partyers see themselves as hard-working Americans whose taxes should not fund benefits for “freeloaders.” Along with illegal immigrants, low-income Americans and young people loom large as illegitimate consumers of public benefits and services. In tea party thinking, they are all asking for more than they have earned.

The Skocpol and Williams analysis suggests there is a generational cleavage opening up, a ‘grey vs. brown’ divide between the conservative sub-urban whites and the multi-racial, cosmopolitan younger generation. The latter are symbolised by Obama, who represents everything the Tea Partiers despise about the contemporary US: he’s mixed-race, immigrant, educated, and wants to make Federal programmes universal rather than targeted at sub-urban middle-class insiders. There’s a very strong moral economy at work here, in which the Tea-Party represents the revolt of the hard-working middle class against feckless and immoral freeloaders who aren’t even ‘real Americans’ anyway.

Unlike Fukuyama, Skocpol isn’t shy about emphasising the role of free-market fundamentalist organisations funded by billionaires in the Tea-Party – or more accurately in leverage the Tea-Party to gain influence over the Republican national agenda. Although they don’t have much sway at the grass-roots level (which is genuinely a grass-roots movement), well-funded organisations such as Americans for Prosperity (supported by the Koch brothers) have been busily promoting an agenda that seems compatible but is actually contradictory to the ‘welfare only for us’ platform of the Tea-Party. The Tea-Partiers might be organising in their own interests, but risk being played for fools by the big money agenda. In fairness to Fukuyama, he does note that

Republican politicians are completely bought by Wall Street

but he doesn’t give a very clear view between the hard-right business conservatives, the Republican party and the Tea-Party as does Skocpol. Her analysis suggests we are seeing a significant realignment in US politics. A question raised by Fukuyama is pertinent, however. ‘Where is the uprising from the left?’ Why does Occupy have difficulty in moving beyond its young activist base to become a broad populist left-of centre movement? Why is its ‘blame narrative’ and set of claims about social justice less compelling to many Americans than that of the Tea-Party? It’s not an easy question to answer, but it’s an important one.


Posted on February 8, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Hey, cool blog. I recently reviewed Skocpol and Williamson’s book with a colleagues and one of our students. While I think the socio-cultural boundaries being drawn-up between a “grey vs. brown” or “young vs. old” America is no doubt under development, I would take the comments above in another direction. And, I should note, I don’t think it is unfair to pit Fukuyama against S&W; however, I respond as a sociologist to S&W’s empirical work now:

    S&W severely limit their theoretical commitments in “The Tea Party and …” and, as a result, they failed to undercover what might have been the single most important contribution of the book – a chance to broadly theorize about conservative social movements. Ziad Munson (2009), author of “The Making of Pro-life Activists: How Social Movement Mobilization Works”, was invited to be the keynote speaker at the 60th annual Pennsylvania Sociological Society meeting and spoke on the topic of conservative social movements. He suggested that scholars have tended to characterize social movements to be prototypically liberal or progressive in nature. After all, social movements mobilize for change, in the typical account. Munson observed something else; he observed a form of under-theorized activism, namely, activism for stasis. Skocpol and Williamson resist the temptation to broadly theorize about what they observe, likely to keep the book appealing to a broader audience than merely scholars, but frustrating the latter group in the process.

  2. I completely agree that illberal and non-‘progressive’ social movements are under-theorised in and unduly ignored by social scientists (so called ‘autocracies’ seem similarly under-analysed within comparative government, although this is further away from my area of primary interest). Clifford Bob (also here at Duck of Minerva) has made a similar argument in his new book that IR/global governance scholars have assumed that transnational social movements are always ‘progressive’ and have thus ignored the growth of right-wing TNCs.

    • “illiberal” is something I had not yet heard; nice. I’ll check out Bob’s book and see what I think.
      The next stage, however, is an explanation. One explanation for why scholars (sociology, political science, IR, international affairs, etc.) don’t theorize non-progressive movements must be that they are not studying them, or else they’d have no choice but to theorize them. That can be taken two directions. First, the “oh, but they do study them” direction. After all, we’ve been discussion Skocpol’s recent book about Tea Partiers; however, it is wanting in theory (quite badly, in my opinion). Second, the “they are liberal” direction. Sociologists, for example, according to some research ( tend to be fairly progressive in their thinking, on average. While I am not convinced that sociologists that are not progressive get marginalized, being progressive politically does seem to be a predictive factor for going into the social sciences (ha! JK). I digress.
      I guess my point is, documenting these biases is different from explaining them, and while I’m open to direction two (which I think will be a common explanation in years to come as we awaken from this progressive dream in political sociology), I’d really like to have an explanation that utilized direction one –> even when we study them (these odd tribes of non-progressive natives), we do not yet dare to theorize them…

  3. Interesting, although I agree with the blog that Democrat != left-wing!

    I think that the reasons why non-progressive and right-wing transnational activist networks (TANs) have been overlooked in IR and global studies are similar. In particular, there was a significant post-Cold War wave of scholarship in IR that sought to identify potentials for progressive change within international relations, which according to an influential tradition was supposed to be governed by immutable laws and the invariant logic of power politics. Identifying TANs experiencing quite a bit of success in advocating policies which the scholars themselves were sympathetic to was quite a welcome finding. In fairness, the progressive/liberal/left-leaning TANs had a higher profile and were making significant waves in areas such as environmental governance, world trade negotiations etc. at the time.

    It might also be worth noting that there is at least the rudimentary theoretical framework for analysis of right-wing TANs: that provided by Polanyi in his account of ‘movements for social protection’ reacting to the cyclical deregulation of capitalism and the expansion of markets. Polanyian scholars tend to divide these movements into inegalitarian social movements, which seek to protect their members through a retreat into parochial forms of community, and egalitarian social-movements, which seek to build alliances amongst subordinate groups . But this analysis does, I think, assume that right-wing ‘movements for social protection’ will be localist and inwardly focused. It doesn’t seem as much use in analysis of the transnational ‘Bible-and-Burkha’ coalitions Clifford Bob analyses.

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