The left thinks business controls the Republican Party. They’re wrong.

Theda Skocpol is a Harvard political scientist and co-author of "The Tea Party and the Remaking of American Conservatism." We spoke about the Tea Party's evolution, and its post-2012 tactics, Friday. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

tea party

(Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Ezra Klein: Are you surprised the Tea Party is still capable of driving Congress this way?

Theda Skocpol: No, I'm not. After the 2012 election we wrote a short brief saying the Tea Party is alive and well and would continue to exercise a lot of leverage. The Tea Party is a phenomenon about leveraging Republicans and preventing them from compromising.

EK: What do you mean by that?

TS: Well, first, the Tea Party is not one thing. It’s a confluence of three things. One is a powerful right-wing media-and-messaging machine that gives them unusual access to Republican-identified, older white male voters. Then there are funders prepared to press certain kinds of policy stands and strategies on members of Congress and willing to fund challengers to them on the right if they don’t go along. And then of course there are these Republican activists, which is who we tend to think of as the Tea Party. And that’s about half of self-identified Republicans in surveys.

EK: The typical accounting is that there are about 30 or 40 or 50 real Tea Party members of Congress. Yet they seem to be exerting a quasi-veto on what John Boehner brings to the floor. So how is their strength so disproportionate to their numbers?

TS: I think Ted Cruz plays a pretty important role in this because he was willing to put himself forward as both a smart strategist and as an embodiment of the no-compromise, fight-to-the-end style that grass-roots tea partiers and funders are thrilled about. They've virtually taken over directing the House of Representatives and they're doing it by coordinating about 40 or 50 people such that they can frighten a much larger number.

EK: That, to me, has been one of the interesting changes since 2012: The divisions between the Tea Party and the rest of the Republican Party seem much clearer.

TS: I think the Tea Party forces have always been about pressuring Republicans in order to get Republicans to counter and check and refuse to compromise with Obama and Democrats. Obama is a very galvanizing force for them. But what’s surprised many in the punditocracy is that they didn’t stand down in 2012. It didn’t surprise me because they have a huge beachhead in the state legislatures and also in the House and now in the Senate.

I want to be clear about something. These are very good citizens. They pay attention, they speak up, they do what we're supposed to do. But they're undemocratic in the sense that they don't always feel others have the legitimacy to speak up and participate. In the field work we did, we never heard anyone speak up and say they believed in the need to let others be part of the process and to compromise with their idea.

EK: Christopher Parker, in his new book on the Tea Party, argues that they’re animated by this idea that they're losing the America they know —and that that drives them to more extreme tactics, as it is, on some level, a fight for survival. Is that what your research showed?

TS: At the grass roots, absolutely. The refrain we heard all over the country is I don't recognize what America is becoming. Our country is being taken away from us. At the grass roots it’s a fear of a changing society. Obama personally and Obamacare generally are seen as symbols of that change. That’s part of why people get so worked up about the health-care law.

EK: But then there’s the funding world, and a lot of the key Republican funders are in the business community and they don't want this shutdown, much less a debt-ceiling breach.

TS: They're so passe! Everybody on the left thinks business controls the Republican Party. I’ve startled a few people by saying that we should be so lucky! Mainstream businesses don't want a government shutdown or a default. I think some of those business forces are waking up and realizing they’ve spent a lot of money on folks they don't have much influence with.

EK: It seems today that the Chamber of Commerce matters less to the Republican Party than the Heritage Foundation and Americans for Prosperity.

TS: But we have to back up. It’s been true since long before Obama that there’ve been these highly ideological think-tank like groups and these political action committees independent of the Republican Party itself channeling money to conservatives. And there've been tax-oriented groups like Americans for Tax Reform and Club for Growth focused on using these checklists and pledges to enforce orthodoxy.

What changed is when Obama came to office, they got an energized grass roots called the Tea Party, some of these groups reorganized themselves and became very adept at leveraging the Tea Party to close the pincers on Republicans. So it’s not just that they have money from above but voters from below. Look at Heritage, which is really interesting. For a senator from South Carolina to quit the Senate and take the presidency of Heritage, that tells me he thought he'd be more powerful in setting the agenda for the Republican Party by going outside the Capitol and outside the Congress.

EK: Why do you think that is?

TS: I think we’ve seen the dissolution of a Republican Party apparatus that was able to enforce discipline. They used to be able to at least throw a blanket over some of the crazies so they didn’t scare everybody in the middle. And it’s been remarkable to see the Democratic Party become a disciplined machine. I never thought I'd live to see that. Harry Reid hasn't lost a single member on any of these votes. And I don't think he will.

EK: What does it mean for the Republican Party going forward?

TS: What’s happening here is unprecedented since the civil war. I'm not saying there’ve never been closures before. I don't think we’ve seen a major party since 1860 threaten to shut down the entire government if they can’t overturn a presidential election. Think of the irony of that. At its birth, the Republican Party was held up by the losing Democrats in the 1860 election who said we will destroy the union if you don't sign onto our agenda. You can call it tactics but that sounds minor. I don't think this is minor.

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