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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.

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