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The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 March 2011

Vanessa Williamson
Harvard University. E-mail:
Theda Skocpol
Harvard University. E-mail:
John Coggin
Harvard Divinity School. E-mail:


In the aftermath of a potentially demoralizing 2008 electoral defeat, when the Republican Party seemed widely discredited, the emergence of the Tea Party provided conservative activists with a new identity funded by Republican business elites and reinforced by a network of conservative media sources. Untethered from recent GOP baggage and policy specifics, the Tea Party energized disgruntled white middle-class conservatives and garnered widespread attention, despite stagnant or declining favorability ratings among the general public. As participant observation and interviews with Massachusetts activists reveal, Tea Partiers are not monolithically hostile toward government; they distinguish between programs perceived as going to hard-working contributors to US society like themselves and “handouts” perceived as going to unworthy or freeloading people. During 2010, Tea Party activism reshaped many GOP primaries and enhanced voter turnout, but achieved a mixed record in the November general election. Activism may well continue to influence dynamics in Congress and GOP presidential primaries. Even if the Tea Party eventually subsides, it has undercut Obama's presidency, revitalized conservatism, and pulled the national Republican Party toward the far right.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2011

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