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

December 22 • 12:25 PM

Stop Trying to Be ‘the Next Silicon Valley’

American cities often try to mimic their more economically successful counterparts. A new study suggests that it’s time to stop.


December 22 • 12:00 PM

Pill Mills and the Rise of Controlled Substance Use in Medicare

Despite warnings about abuse, Medicare covered more prescriptions for potent controlled substances in 2012 than it did in 2011. The program’s top prescribers often have faced disciplinary action or criminal charges related to their medical practices.


December 22 • 10:00 AM

Economics at the North Pole: Are Santa’s Elves Slaves?

A pair of economists seek to reconcile two conflicting schools of thought in order to predict what sort of environments increase incentives for labor coercion.


December 22 • 8:00 AM

What Influences Whether Owners Pick Up After Their Dogs?

The presence or absence of suitable receptacles for bags is not the whole picture.


December 22 • 7:04 AM

Coming Soon: This Is How Gangs End


December 22 • 6:00 AM

Politicians Gonna Politic

Is there something to the idea that a politician who no longer faces re-election is free to pursue new policy solutions without needing to kowtow to special interests?


December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


Follow us


Stop Trying to Be ‘the Next Silicon Valley’

American cities often try to mimic their more economically successful counterparts. A new study suggests that it's time to stop.

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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