The rise of populist conservatism is perhaps the most significant development in American party politics over the past two decades. In her recent book How the Tea Party Captured the GOP, Rachel Blum, an assistant professor at the Carl Albert Center at the University of Oklahoma, explains how the so-called “Tea Party” wing of the Republican Party came about and what its influence has been on American politics.
I spoke recently with Professor Blum about her book and the relationship between the Tea Party and recent events. The transcript is edited for clarity and brevity.
Matt Green: The preface to your book is unusually personal for an academic work. Can you say a little bit about how your own upbringing informed your research?
Rachel Blum: I grew up in what we would now call Christian Right movement politics. We started going to a fundamentalist church and having a lot of very complicated rules about everything. And it started spilling over into politics. The Republican Party was [seen as] God's Party, so we supported Republicans, no matter what they did.
Then [my parents] sent me to a conservative Christian college, Patrick Henry College in Virginia. So I was even more deeply acquainted with Christian right movement politics through that.
A couple of years later, I'm in graduate school and there are all these people coming into DC for Glenn Beck's March on the Mall. I talked to a couple of those people, and they were not people who had been involved in the Christian Right. They're mostly Republicans, but they were pretty mad at their party.
It all comes to a head when I'm in a graduate seminar on public opinion with Professor Clyde Wilcox. He assigned a working paper on the Tea Party, and I remember reading it and [thinking] this is all wrong. This isn't how conservatives think about what they're doing. So Clyde told me to go do it better.
I started with about 15 interviews in southwest Virginia. The thing that struck me that was different, based on my background, was how the Tea Partiers were talking about the Republican Party. This was not a friendly compatriots situation. The thing they wanted to talk to me about most was their betrayal by the Republican Party.
MG: One of the things that impressed me about the Tea Party when it emerged was how a movement that was so decentralized could have so much political influence. How were Tea Party organizations able to be influential despite being so decentralized?
RB: I end up calling them an insurgency for this reason, because this was a big puzzle. They seemed to be coordinating, and they seemed to be coordinating long after all the protests had died down. The more I started thinking about it, the more it became clear that this was not a weakness any more than the structure of U.S. political parties is a weakness.
What the local groups ended up doing was establishing some presence in every state in almost every Congressional district across the country. The level of activity seemed to correspond to places where the Republican presidential candidate usually got between 50% and 60% of the vote, so where a Republican could still win if it was a Tea Party Republican.
So mimicking the national party structure as an insurgency allowed the Tea Party to come in and take over existing party machinery in a lot of areas.
MG: In the book you focus on Tea Party activity in two states, Ohio and Virginia. Why did you choose those two states?
RB: I thought it was an interesting illustration of how different state laws create different environments and what that tells us about the Tea Party. I looked at a state that originally had really lenient third party ballot laws, Ohio, and a state that did not, Virginia.
[Initially] the Tea Party in Ohio manifested not as Republicans but as Libertarian challengers to Republican candidates. But in 2013 the state Election Board officially changed their ballot laws, and they made it very difficult for a third party candidate to get access to a ballot. So that kind of changes the strategy in Ohio, so it [more closely follows] the strategy in a state like Virginia, a place where [becoming] a third party was not an easy way to enter a contest.
In a context where electoral laws allowed a third party to enter, they would have been a third party. But because most states in this country don't allow easy ballot access for third party candidates, the Tea Party acted as a faction within a major party.
MG: I want to turn now to Congress. At one point, there was a Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives, but it didn't last very long. Are there other ways that the Tea Party movement has been able to influence congressional politics?
RB: Yes. The Tea Party Caucus itself is interesting because, as you mentioned, it went away quickly. The other fascinating component is that it mobilized before Tea Partiers had even been elected to Congress. As Tea Partiers come into Congress, these original Tea Party Caucus members discover that they are being pushed out because they are no longer ideologically pure enough, and that Caucus dies down.
We [then] get two other Caucuses that can help us see the movement of that faction in Congress. One is the Liberty Caucus, and the other, more prominent one is the House Freedom Caucus. Members of the House Freedom Caucus and the Liberty Caucus acted differently than other Republicans, which is what we would expect if it were a faction.
And then we can look at the pressures these members were getting from their districts where, if they were to misstep, they knew a primary challenger awaited them. So you end up with this kind of Robespierre Reign of Terror: everyone is constantly trying to avoid being the insider that you inevitably become when you are an elected representative.
MG: Let's fast forward to more recent events. What role, if any, do you think the Tea Party movement had in Donald Trump's election as President?
RB: There wasn't a direct role. Some Tea Party groups were still meeting, but by and large they felt less of a need to be a separate entity from the Republican Party. They had pretty much been absorbed into the Party.
It also helped Trump that for the prior, say, eight years, conservative media had been touting the Tea Party and its grievances, and the Tea Party had been part and parcel of the formation of this alternative conservative news apparatus. They were reading Breitbart before it was cool. So everything that goes into the Trump presidency was kind of a rip-off of original Tea Party stuff, packaged with a little bit more glitz and matching hats.
So you could say that the Tea Party connects to Trump in two ways. It primes the party apparatus to at least be too afraid to oppose him. And then you have a conservative electorate that is being fed this steady diet of conspiracies…and you get an electorate that’s primed to be fertile ground for Trump's messaging.
MG: Is this the same dynamic that explains the election of folks like Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Green [to Congress] and the attack on the U.S. Capitol?
RB: There are probably some important differences between QAnon and Q’s followers [on one hand], and the Tea Party [on the other hand], but those differences aren't very big. QAnon has a very specific set of conspiracy theoretical beliefs that are part of that environment, and the Tea Party did too. Tea Partiers were happy to talk to me about UN and its Agenda 21 sustainability initiative as this insidious plan for One World Government, how smart meters and LED light bulbs are tools for government surveillance…just anything you can think of.
And then you get to the Capitol riots. I do realize that not every Tea Partier or everyone who was part of the Tea Party supported them. But the groups that were part of those riots, the organized militia groups, were at minimum fellow travelers of the Tea Party. I traced a substantial number of links and cross references [from Tea Party organizations] to citizen militia groups.
MG: Finally, I want to ask you about interviews. You do a lot of interviews for this book, but interviews are not the most common means of gathering data in political science, at least in the study of American politics. Why did you do interviews, and what were the advantages using interviews to gather data for your project?
RB: Initially, I did interviews because that was that was what I was familiar with. I was attempting initially to use in-depth interviewing to elicit what Tea Partiers were really thinking about when they were joining the movement, how they saw themselves and it connected.
As things moved on, I continued to do interviews because they show you where to look. I wouldn't have known to look at Ohio and Virginia as case studies if I hadn't been talking to local party leaders in those states who were able to clue me in to where to look.
I think interviews are an undervalued and an underutilized tool in empirical political science. I personally think that if more people got their shoes dirty, we would have a little bit better grip on descriptive phenomena.