Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


tea-party-dc-march

Tea Party protesters walk toward the United States Capitol during the Taxpayer March on Washington, September 12, 2009. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Don’t Blame Voters for the Tea Party or the Government Shutdown

• October 21, 2013 • 12:00 PM

Tea Party protesters walk toward the United States Capitol during the Taxpayer March on Washington, September 12, 2009. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Constituents in Tea Party districts demanded conservative stances from their elected officials, but that didn’t need to include destructive or potentially catastrophic tactics.

One question political observers seem to be asking lately with regards to the recent Tea Party-inspired government shutdown and near-default is, where did this movement come from? If even many Republicans regard the shutdown as an error (a “foolish” and “stupid” mistake, according to Haley Barbour; “one of the more shameful chapters I have seen,” according to John McCain), how did it happen?

Some have looked to voters themselves as the cause of all this. In an excellent piece for the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza profiles the districts of those members of Congress who signed onto the shutdown effort. In Lizza’s words:

[T]hese eighty members represent an America where the population is getting whiter, where there are few major cities, where Obama lost the last election in a landslide, and where the Republican Party is becoming more dominant and more popular. Meanwhile, in national politics, each of these trends is actually reversed.

In one sense, these eighty members are acting rationally. They seem to be pushing policies that are representative of what their constituents back home want. But even within the broader Republican Party, they represent a minority view, at least at the level of tactics (almost all Republicans want to defund Obamacare, even if they disagree about using the issue to threaten a government shutdown).

Understanding the districts where these members of Congress came from is important, but I think it is a mistake to assume that they’re just doing what their voters want. Their district profiles make them conservative, but they didn’t compel them to the extreme actions we saw earlier this month.

Here’s a counter-example: the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), which includes 41 African American voting members of the U.S. House of Representatives. The CBC is roughly the same size as the Tea Party House Caucus (with 46 members). If we look at how CBC members’ districts compare to those of Tea Party members, we find that Obama received 77 percent of the vote in 2012 in CBC districts and 37 percent in Tea Party districts. In other words, CBC districts are further to the left than Tea Party districts are to the right. What’s more, a look at members’ “ideal points“—estimates of legislator ideology based on roll call voting patterns—shows that CBC members are further to the left of the Democratic Caucus than Tea Party members are to the right of the Republican Caucus. In other words, by many measures, the Congressional Black Caucus is more of an ideological outlier than the Tea Party is.

And yet … when was the last time CBC members moved to shut down the federal government or threaten a global financial meltdown if their needs were not met? For decades, the CBC has pressed its policy agenda under various presidents, but always through traditional democratic processes. Like the Tea Party, it has found the most clout when its affiliated party held a modest-sized majority and its members were pivotal over whether the majority won or lost on a vote. Thus was the CBC influential over the enactment of the Family Medical Leave Act, the Motor Voter law, the earned-income tax credit, and the crime bill in the early 1990s. But at no time, as far as I know, has the CBC ever come close to embracing the sort of tactics we have seen from Tea Party Caucus members in recent weeks.

This is, I think, part of a general difference between the parties. As Jonathan Bernstein has noted (here, for example), the Democrats tend to sideline their cranks, while the Republicans tend to lionize theirs. Think of Representative Maxine Waters, the veteran Democrat from South Los Angeles. She has a venerable history within the party and holds a great deal of political influence in her home district. And yet she’s prone to saying outlandish things, such as when she repeatedly demanded a federal investigation into an alleged CIA conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine in urban communities. And despite her experience, she never chairs congressional committees and rarely represents the party on Sunday talk shows. Contrast that with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who is at least as far to the right as Waters is to the left. Despite having served for a mere eight months, Republican leaders in the Senate deferred to him when he wanted to conduct a quasi-filibuster over the purported evils of Obamacare, and conservative legislators in the House followed his lead into creating the recent shutdown crisis. And while deeply unpopular today among many congressional leaders, he is now considered by some to be the frontrunner in the 2016 race for the Republican presidential nomination.

All this is to say that electoral politics didn’t compel Republicans into the recent shutdown crisis. Constituents in Tea Party districts demanded conservative stances from their elected officials, but that didn’t need to include destructive or potentially catastrophic tactics. Constituents in Congressional Black Caucus districts want dramatic changes to our political system, too, but their elected officials have tended to push for them through traditional democratic means. The decision to shut down the government and threaten economic damage was made at the elite level. Both parties have extremists in their ranks, but only one chose the path we saw in the last month.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.