Menus Subscribe Search

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, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.

September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.

September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.

September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Moly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.

September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.

September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?

September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.

September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.

September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.

September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.

September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.

September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.

September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.

September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.

September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.

September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.

September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.

September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.

September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.

September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.

Follow us

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

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