Explaining the Origins of the Tea Party: A Rebuttal of Mark Lilla

by John Sides on June 2, 2010 · 5 comments

in Public opinion

Mark Lilla’s essay, “The Tea Party Jacobins,” seeks to explain the origins of the Tea Party. I do not disagree the part of his explanation that emphasizes the most proximate causes—particularly the financial collapse, bailout, and health care reform. Nor do I disagree with his prognosis, which is that the Tea Party faces significant organizational challenges (see this earlier post). But Lilla believes the Tea Party also stems from a “populist mood that has been brewing for decades” and is a “manifestation of deeper social and even psychological changes that the country has undergone in the past half-century.” Here, I think he is quite wrong.

To Lilla, the public has taken a libertarian turn. It is characterized by “radical individualism”:

During the Clinton years the country edged left on issues of private autonomy (sex, divorce, casual drug use) while continuing to move right on economic autonomy (individual initiative, free markets, deregulation).

Americans have become more libertarian on some social issues, such as those related to gay rights, but not all. Lilla notes abortion (correctly). There are others. Consider these recent Gallup data and the continuing unpopularity of, say, extramarital affairs.

The bigger problem is Lilla’s assertion that the public has “moved right” on economic autonomy. In the very short run, there has been some increase in the percentage who believe that government is doing “too much,” although majorities are perfectly happy to have the government regulate Wall Street banks. Populism cuts in both directions.

But Lilla’s argument is over the long term (“brewing for decades”). Here the evidence is much more equivocal. I previously noted that, as of 2004, the percentage of people who thought that the government should provide “more services” was double that who thought the government should provide fewer—and this reflected an increase in support for government over time. And, as of 2008, even conservatives seem reluctant to cut many government programs. It is hard to reconcile such findings with some decades-long increase in the desire for autonomy from government.

Lilla also finds the origins of the Tea Party in a growing distrust of government:

Ever since the Seventies, social scientists have puzzled over the fact that, despite greater affluence and relative peace, Americans have far less trust in their government than they had up until the mid-Sixties. Just before the last election, only a tenth of Americans said that they were “satisfied with the way things are going in the United States,” a record low. They express some confidence in the presidency and the courts, but when asked in the abstract about “the government” and whether they expect it to do the right thing or whether it is run for our benefit, a relatively consistent majority says “no.”

This mischaracterizes the trend in trust in government, which I previous described here. See also these data. I’ll reprint the graph, just for the sake of illustration:


In short, the level of trust in government sharply increased in the 1990s, back to levels not seen since the early 1970s. If Lilla were writing this piece in 2000, he would be remarking on the massive turnaround in Americans’ confidence in government. I will say it again: there has been no secular decline in trust in government. It waxes and wanes with economic growth. If the Tea Party’s origins are tied to distrust of government, this is a short-term, not a long-term, phenomenon.

Lilla, citing this book by Marc Hetherington, buttresses his case with this “astonishing fact”:

in 1965 nearly half of Americans believed that the War on Poverty would “help wipe out poverty”—a vote of confidence in our political institutions unimaginable today.

Really? Quick quiz about health care reform: what percent of Americans believe that “changes the new law will make to the country’s health care system will be generally good for the country”? Nearly half.

Lilla goes further: he sees people alienated from a variety of institutions. This leads to several other assertions that are inaccurate or incomplete:

Democrats have edged slightly more left on political and economic issues, whereas the views of independents, the largest and fastest-growing group of voters, have not changed much over the years.
…as voters have become more autonomous, less attracted to parties and familiar ideologies, it has become harder for political institutions to represent them collectively

Italics mine. Regular readers of this blog know what I think of such assertions. I’ll say it again, again. Most independents are loyal partisans. Only about 10% of the public is truly independent. And party loyalty among voters has become stronger in both presidential and congressional elections. More importantly, the partisan complexion of Tea Party activists is consistently Republican.

Lilla is also wrong about parties in political institutions:

The disappointment only grew in subsequent decades, as Congress seemed less and less able to act decisively and legislate coherently. There are many reasons for this, some of them perverse consequences of reforms meant to make government more open and responsive to the public. New committees and subcommittees were established to focus on narrower issues, but this had the unintended effect of making them more susceptible to lobbyists and the whims of powerful chairmen. Congressional hearings began to be televised and campaign finances were made public, but as a result individual congressmen and senators became more self-sufficient and could ignore party dictates. Coalitions broke apart, large initiatives stalled, special interest legislation and court orders piled up, government grew more complex and less effective.

Italics mine. Lilla is basically describing the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970. But 40 years have intervened. In that period, the parties have become more ideologically homogeneous and also ideologically distinct from each other (see this post). As a consequence, the parties’ rank-and-file have been more willing to empower party leaders. This is conditional party government theory. Small wonder, then, that party unity has increased.

Because Lilla gets this wrong, he gets the consequences wrong too:

And Americans noticed. Not recognizing themselves in the garbled noises coming out of Washington, unsure what the major parties stood for, they drew the conclusion that their voices were being ignored. Which was not exactly true. It’s just that, paradoxically, more voice has meant less echo.

The percentage of Americans who “think there are any important differences in what the Republicans and Democrats stand for” has actually increased over time. Here is one graph of data through 2004:


This makes sense, given that the parties are increasing ideologically distinct.

Similarly, over the period from 1988-2004, the percentage who think that “public officials don’t care much what people like me think” has not increased in any linear fashion. An apparent increase from 1952-86, when the question’s response options were different, has not continued during the past 20 years.

Ultimately, Lilla sees Americans as disconnected from many institutions: public education, as they increasingly opting for home schooling; and the medical establishment, as they refuse vaccines. Americans, he says, believe that “expertise and authority are inherently suspect” and instead harbor “fantasies of self-sufficiency.”

These are very broad claims, and so naturally they are leaky. Yes, the public is less confident of some institutions, like the medical establishment (Lilla cites these GSS data). But not the “scientific community.” And they actually seem to have become more, not less, deferential to authority in other respects. The GSS also asks “would you say that people should obey the law without exception, or are there exceptional occasions on which people should follow their consciences even if it means breaking the law?” The percentage who said “obey the law without exceptions” was higher in 2006 (55%) than in 1985 (43%).

Ultimately, Lilla thinks Americans have lost confidence in political parties, government, and other institutions, but gained faith in themselves. In fact, they have not lost their partisanship and see the parties as increasingly distinct, perhaps taking their cues from today’s ideologically polarized parties. In fact, they have lost and gained and lost and gained and lost confidence in government. In fact, they oppose government regulation and spending in theory, but often accept it in practice. In fact, they have lost confidence in some institutions but not others, and do not reject authority in principle.

The Tea Party is not the outcome of a rootless America. I would locate its origins elsewhere, in what Lilla describes only briefly. It is the outcome of a specific set of events: a deep recession and the government’s interventions to address that recession, an attendant financial crisis, and health care reform. If it did find fertile ground in attitudinal currents—such as distrust of government—those too are short-term products of the recession. It also grew from the objections of prominent conservative politicians and opinion leaders; Lilla cites Fox News as one example. This is a final oddity: Lilla emphasizes the alienation of Americans from parties and “familiar ideologies,” yet it is the fervor of Tea Party activists for an entirely familiar ideology and certain familiar ideologues that makes them distinctive.

{ 5 comments }

Matt June 4, 2010 at 10:22 am

Thank you for the welcome corrective to Lilla’s essay. I hope you also sent a letter to the NYRB — it would be worth seeing how (or even if) Lilla rebuts your argument.

LFC June 4, 2010 at 10:45 pm

You say there has been “no secular decline in trust in govt. It waxes and wanes with economic growth.”

Yet your own graph, if I am reading it correctly, does not support this assertion. The year 1958 was a mild recession year, I seem to recall reading somewhere, yet trust in govt, acc. to your graph, was just below 80 percent. It never gets up to that level again, even in the boom years of the 90s. Thus your own graph suggests there has been a decline, albeit not as sharp as Lilla and others suggest, in trust in govt.

I read Lilla’s piece quickly a while ago, and I nodded at his line about the 65 War on Poverty. It is difficult to imagine a comparable response now, and your reference to the the health care question doesn’t really rebut this convincingly.

Lilla overdraws the picture, but to suggest that there has been no change in public attitudes toward government in the past 60 years — well, I’m not quite ready to sign on to that assertion. For one thing, it implies that the period conventionally dubbed the 60s (ie. c.1964-c.1973) had no lasting effects on public attitudes toward govt. Is that true? Can it possibly be the case that the Vietnam War and Watergate had no lasting effect on public attitudes? That from this standpoint they might as well never have happened? I find that a little hard to believe.

Hank June 6, 2010 at 12:24 am

I think Mr. Lilla is making the assumption that “conservatism” does not have major differences within the movement and to the extent he does he sees them as graduations on a scale not several distinct tendencies. He is asking the wrong questions so his careful analysis can’t reach a good resolution. Of course “conservatives’ of all varieties are just as bad in evaluating there liberal counter parts.

Several observations.

President Johnson’s Great Society increased the number of contacts people have with government. Every time some one has a dealing with the government and does not like the process or result it is a reason for dissatisfaction. If he does not see the government participation as adding benefit to the action he will have a reason for dislike. Unsatisfactory events are remembered more strongly than positive events. A government that is far away with minimum direct interaction is easier to perceive in a positive light than one you where spent the day arguing with a petty bureaucrat. Thus there is a general unfocused dislike of at least specific government programs to which the Tea Party movement is trying provide a focus.

The events leading up to the current economic crisis look can be described as a failure of government, not of this party or that, both of which contributed to the problem, but of the capacity of government to micro-mange the economy. Thus it would be proposed that the solution is NOT more government. Which is a narrative that plays very well with traditionally conservatives. (Most accept a role for government, not more but less and better focused with a healty understning of the limits of what can be expected.)

The “libertarian” tendency (never more than 5% of the total electorate but able to reach 10% as a protest vote) has always had a dislike of government in general, quoting Thomas Jefferson “the government that governs least governs best.” In pre-2009 if you asked them to make a straw man description of big government it would look, to them and many with a more traditional idea of fiscal policy, a lot like the current administration. It gives them a story line that feeds the Tea Party movement. I would not want to overstate their influence but they provide the best critique even if they do not provide a positive alternative.

Listenimg to people on their own terms often provides a better understaning than forcing them into a predetermined ideology

Alex June 7, 2010 at 12:19 am

I’m curious if you have a “proximate” explanation for why the U.S. movement is a right-leaning movement and not a left-leaning movement (as opposed to, e.g., Greece).

Alex June 7, 2010 at 12:32 am

“In fact, they have lost confidence in some institutions but not others, and do not reject authority in principle.”

- So maybe Lilla shouldn’t have made a blanket statement about authority, but I still think there’s an important point to be made about what kinds of authority people are willing to accept (the penal system but not scientific knowledge). I also imagine you would find some interesting things if you parsed the question about law and order a bit more. Rather than asking about whether it’s okay to break the law, ask whether it’s okay to break specific laws (drug use, property violation, breaking tax law, infringing on civil rights, criminal negligence [corporate versus personal]…).

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