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‘People don’t fully appreciate how committed the tea party is to not compromising’

The story of the shutdown is, in large part, the story of mainstream Republicans realizing they can't control tea party Republicans -- and deciding that it's better to go along than to try and fight. Christopher Parker, a political scientist at the University of Washington, is co-author of the book "Change They Can't Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America", which employs large surveys and content analyses to better understand how the politics of the tea party differ from the politics of the Republican Party. We spoke on Wednesday, and a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Ezra Klein: Tell me a bit about the scope of your research on the tea party.

Christopher Parker: So I run a survey research lab at the University of Washington. In 2010, I began to see these opposing views on the tea party. You had Peggy Noonan and Juan Williams basically saying, the tea partiers are just angry Republicans, no big deal. Then I read Frank Rich, and he says no, these people are completely different. He says they’re more in line with Richard Hofstadter’s "Paranoid Style of American Politics." And I thought, I can get real data on this! And when I looked at it empirically, I found that people who supported the tea party tended to be more racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and anti-Obama.

EK: So I’m not exactly a tea partier myself. But when I hear you say that I bristle. The description members of the tea party would give of themselves is that they’re really concerned about the growth of government and the rise in taxes and the management of the economy. Labeling them things like racist, sexist and homophobic sounds like an attempt to just write them out of civilized discourse. So persuade me that this isn’t just an attack.

CP: What I do in these surveys and models is I account for desire for limited government. I account for ideology. I account for all these other things where people could say they’re just more conservative. There’s just this empirical connection between support for the tea party and antagonistic views toward quote-unquote marginalized groups, or, if you prefer, toward quote-unquote not real Americans. If you look at the historical and social scientific literature on American national identity, the portrait that emerges is mainly white, male, middle class, straight, at least a bit educated, and a bit older.

Look at who rose during this period. It’s not all about Obama. Nancy Pelosi was the first female speaker of the House. Barney Frank wielded real power. Two women, one of whom was a Latina, went to the Supreme Court. Undocumented workers have gotten a ton of attention. There’s been the rise of same-sex rights.

That’s the crux of the book. The title is ‘Change They Can’t Believe In’. This isn’t new. Whenever there’s rapid social change it triggers this kind reactionary conservatism. People see their social prestige threatened, their way of life threatened. And they react.

EK: Tell me about the surveys. Who are you talking to?

CP: The data set is collected in 13 states, 10 of which were battleground states in 2010. We drew the data in 2011. That’s the survey data. We also have a content analysis where we look at the content of 42 tea party Web sites in 15 states, and we compare it with the content of the National Review Online. And it couldn’t be more different. If you look at core postwar conservative principles, it tends to be around the size of government, then you also have national security conservative and social conservatives. And that can be an uneasy fit between the limited government and social conservative types. What brings them together is the threat of communism.

So if you look at this postwar discourse in the National Review Online you have some content about limited government, some about social conservatism, and some about national security. That content accounts for 76 percent of that National Review online. Now if you look at the Tea Party Web sites, that only accounts for 30 percent. Then there’s this conspiratorial discourse Hofstadter talks about that says government is really trying to bring about socialism, etc. That’s only about five percent of what you find at the National Review. On tea party Web sites it’s about a third.

So to draw this together, the reason people should believe us is we have disparate data sources that collapse on the same answer. It’s that these people are not the traditional, mainstream conventional conservatives. If you look at tea party conservatives, or as we call them in the book, reactionary conservatives, they don’t want change at all. They want to go back in time.

EK: But if you ask them, they wouldn’t say something like “I want to go back in time” or “all change is bad.” Again, that's now how they see themselves. So what are they saying to you that’s leading you to these conclusions?

CP: Bear with me for a moment I'm going to read you some quotes from our interviews in the field. We interviewed true believers and skeptics and every one in between. So let me give you an example of a real tea party supporter’s explanation of Obama,.

“I think he comes from a very socialist-Marxist background. I think it’s absolutely the way he leads. I think he wants to micromanages individuals as an elitist, looking down, trying to make people do what he thinks they should be doing. And I think that’s very close to tyranny and I think that’s very wrong.”

And one other example. One tea party supporter went further, calling him “an enemy of the state. A freaking communist.” So let me be clear. I’m not saying all tea partiers are like this. It’s not a categorical assessment, It’s probabilistic. If you have one person who loves the tea party and one who hates the tea party the probability is the one who loves the tea party will be more like this. But people don’t fully appreciate how committed the tea party is to not compromising and not capitulating.

CP: What we do is we use support for the tea party as a proxy for reactionary conservatives. During the time of this survey about 22 percent of the country strongly supports the tea party.

EK: That’s still not that large. So why do they have such success driving outcomes? 

CP: Because they won’t compromise. You’ve got about 52 members of the Republican conference who are affiliated with the tea party in some official way. That’s a bit less than a quarter of all House Republicans. That’s enough in the House. They refuse to compromise because, to them, compromise is capitulation. If you go back to Hofstadter’s work when he’s talking about when the John Birch Society rode high, he talks about how conservatives would see people who disagree as political opponents, but reactionary conservatives saw them as evil. You can’t capitulate to evil.