How much more is there to learn from the tea party?
We studied the tea party movement as it happened, documenting the movement at its grass roots, in the conservative media, and at the elite levels, and demonstrating how these forces combined to push the Republican Party to the right. Based on our research, here are four lessons that today’s activists might learn from the experience of the tea party.
1. Engage in state elections and party politics.
About 900 grass-roots tea party groups were active in 2009 and 2010. Many of these local activists were very politically sophisticated. Tea party groups followed local politics closely, and their members showed up at school boards, town meetings, and state legislature hearings when issues they cared about were up for debate. Even when activists held very inaccurate views of actual policies — for instance, believing that the Affordable Care Act contained “death panels” — they knew how to navigate our political institutions to have a real impact on policymaking.
This is particularly relevant for activists on the left, who sometimes suffer from the opposite problem: a high level of policy knowledge with a naive vision of politics. In recent years, Democrats have tended to focus on the federal government and especially the presidency, neglecting the state and local races that have huge effects on whether and how policies get implemented.
This is one reason liberals have been losing. After the November elections last year, the Republican Party had control of 32 state legislatures (they had veto-proof majorities in 17 of these) and 33 governorships — an almost unprecedented level of dominance at the state level. Republican state level control limited the impact of the 2008 Democratic wins at the national level. As of Jan. 1, 19 states had chosen not to adopt the Medicaid expansion that would have brought health-care coverage to millions of their citizens.
The tea party activists we met had a pragmatic relationship with the Republican Party. Tea party activists were mostly very conservative Republicans, and were often disgusted by their own politicians’ compromises. However, that disgust did not turn tea party members away from the party; instead, it strengthened their motivation to engage in party processes. For example, some tea party activists became precinct captains. Others involved themselves in sleepy local Republican Party meetings and quickly came to dominate those committees. This gave them far more power over local Republican officials than they had as individual voters.
Of course, tea party activists were voters, too. Occasionally a tea party-infused Republican primary cost the activists a seat or two, when the Republican candidate was too far out of the mainstream to win in a general election. But tea party activists did not only organize on behalf of ideologically pure conservatives. They were ready to campaign and to vote for candidates, like Scott Brown in Massachusetts, who were far from their ideal legislator but vastly more conservative than their Democratic opponents.
What this suggests for activists is that power comes from engaging with the political process at all levels. States’ power will matter in the Trump era on everything from environmental regulation to immigration enforcement. The major political parties are institutions through which activists can assert themselves.
2. Prioritize policies that build power.
When the tea party-fueled Republican Party came to power, state legislators focused on priorities that make them more likely to continue to be in power in the future. For instance, 20 Republican-controlled legislatures have passed legislation since 2010 that is likely to lower voting by traditional Democratic constituencies such as young people, African Americans and Latinos. Seven states have passed laws sharply limiting union activity.
These measures fit with the symbolic and ideological commitments of the Republican Party, but they are also clever strategic moves. Crippling unions and reducing minority turnout are bad for the Democrats, who rely on these constituencies. Similarly, efforts to defund Planned Parenthood appeal to social conservatives opposed to family planning. They also undercut a powerful player in Democratic Party politics.
Right-leaning activists are likely to continue in this vein. Democrats could also prioritize policies that will help build political power for the future. These could include voting reforms that ease the registration process, and social policies with benefits that are easier for voters to recognize and therefore easier to campaign on.
3. Use civic experience and invest in building relationships with fellow activists.
The most memorable organized actions of tea party activists were their big colorful marches. However, it isn’t marches that make political engagement last in the long term. As Hahrie Han’s research on effective political activism reveals, you cannot just mobilize people for one-off big events and expect to build a movement. Instead, successful movements organize activists in interdependent networks that work together and make decisions together, creating many leaders rather than just a few. This style of organization means investing in personal relationships between activists.
At local tea party meetings, there was always time for socializing, so people got to know one another. The demographics of the tea party helped them — they tended to be older people, retirees and small-business people with flexible schedules, and some stay-at-home moms. It also helped that many tea party members had a lot of civic experience to draw from — years of church socials and PTA meetings — so they knew how to organize a meeting, get volunteers signed up for a committee and set up the kind of structures that keep activists engaged over time.
The tea party’s lesson here is that not every event should be a march or policy lecture. Social connections are crucial to effective political organization.
4. Look further afield for inspiration.
Though the movement substantially shifted the Republican Party rightward, the tactics of the tea party should not be the limit of any activist’s political repertoire. At the grass-roots level, the local tea party groups that were so prominent early in the Obama administration went into decline soon after the 2010 midterm elections. We found that about a third of those local groups had disappeared within a year.
But U.S. history does provide examples of civic organizations that lasted not just a few years, but decades, and created tremendous social and political change. There is also a great deal to learn from movements that have not succeeded, such as a national movement for gun control. Activists of all political stripes can and should draw lessons from recent movements, but also the long history of U.S. political organizing.
Vanessa Williamson is a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and author of the new book Read My Lips: Why Americans Are Proud to Pay Taxes.