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“the Tea Party’s ire, directed at Democrats and Republicans alike”

Mark Lilla recalls some recent Barack Obama quotes and then writes:

If this is the way the president and his party think about human psychology, it’s little wonder they’ve taken such a beating.

In the spirit of that old line, “That and $4.95 will get you a tall latte,” let me agree with Lilla and attribute the Democrats’ losses in 2010 to the following three factors:

1. A poor understanding of human psychology;

2. The Democrats holding unified control of the presidency and congress with a large majority in both houses (factors that are historically associated with big midterm losses); and

3. A terrible economy.

I will let you, the readers, make your best guesses as to the relative importance of factors 1, 2, and 3 above.

Don’t get me wrong: I think psychology is important, as is the history of ideas (the main subject of Lilla’s article), and I’d hope that Obama (and also his colleagues in both parties in congress) can become better acquainted with psychology, motivation, and the history of these ideas. I just think it’s stretching things to bring in the election as some sort of outcome of the Democrats’ understanding of political marketing.

Later on, Lilla writes of “the Tea Party’s ire, directed at Democrats and Republicans alike . . . ” Huh? The Tea Party activists are conservative Republicans. Are there any Democrats that the Tea Party participants like? Zell Miller, maybe?

Lilla concludes with an inspiring story of Muhammed Ali coming to Harvard and delivering a two-line poem, at which point, in Lilla’s words, “The students would have followed him anywhere.” He seems to attribute this to Ali’s passion (“In our politics, history doesn’t happen when a leader makes an argument, or even strikes a pose. It happens when he strikes a chord. And you don’t need charts and figures to do that; in fact they get in the way. You only need two words.”), but is that really right? Ali is a culture hero for many reasons, and my guess is the students would’ve followed him anywhere–even if he’d given them charts and figures. Actually, then maybe they’d have had more of an idea of where he was leading them!

It says in the article linked above that Lilla is a professor at Columbia, and, looking him up, I see that he won an award from the American Political Science Association. So I’m a bit surprised to see him write some of the things he writes above, about the Tea Party and attributing the 2010 election to a lack of understanding of psychology. (I assume the Muhammed Ali story is just poetic license.) Probably I’m missing something here, maybe I can ask him directly at some point.

12 Comments

  1. ziel says:

    "The Tea Party activists are conservative Republicans. Are there any Democrats that the Tea Party participants like? Zell Miller, maybe?"

    I think he's referring to the fact the Tea Party candidates took out a number of establishment candidates much to the GOP's chagrin (and in two high-profile cases – Nevada and Delaware – to the party's clear disadvantage, as well). They may have been RINOs, but Republicans nevertheless.

  2. Chris says:

    It's funny how, pre-election, political scientists were all predicting 20-25 seat losses for the Ds based on the economy and unified government, and telling us that the unpopularity of the agenda would make no difference. Then they lose 65 seats, and it's just external circumstances beyond Obama's control. Not his fault. Move along. Nothing to see here…

  3. Morgan says:

    "The Tea Party activists are conservative Republicans."

    I really don't think that's an accurate characterization. The closest analogy in my mind is to the Republican party's historical fiscally conservative wing, with more than a few libertarians without a party thrown in. This wing has grown disaffected. So disaffected that they split the party. Note that splitting the Republican party says very clearly "we're angry at Republicans". It was not founded as an anti-Obama movement.

    Jonathan Rauch called them "debranded Republicans", and that captures my experience of them, too – people who no longer view themselves as being represented by the GOP. The GOP's capture of the Tea Party as a branch of itself for purposes of keeping count in the legislature saved face, but the two entities still sit uneasily in the same boat. I would not be at all surprised to see the Tea Party split completely from the GOP in future elections.

    So I'm not sure the "Republicans" part fits very well. But the main reason "conservative Republicans" doesn't ring true is that on social issues, the Tea Party members generally just don't care very much. They're all over the map on issues like abortion, drugs, and gays in the military, but wherever they fall on them, those issues are not the things that drive them or the Tea Party agenda.

    No, they agree that government is too big, too intrusive, too powerful, and that "Washington" is a machine that rewards those who continue to make government bigger, more intrusive, and more powerful – the better to turn it into a playground for dealing out favors to well connected special interests and receiving perks in return. And they see this as occurrin at the expense of honest, hardworking people – people who pay taxes and live within their means, who don't seek or receive bailouts, who don't expect to get something for nothing, and who believe it is wrong to use government as a tool to steal from other people. This is how they see themselves and their children, and it's consistent with what they consider to be the bedrock values of their country.

    As far as I can tell, that's the only common thread.

  4. zbicyclist says:

    @morgan: "… "Washington" is a machine that rewards those who continue to make government bigger, more intrusive, and more powerful – the better to turn it into a playground for dealing out favors to well connected special interests and receiving perks in return."

    It's at this point that I see the Tea Party critique (from disaffected Republicans) as similar to the Nader critique (from disaffected Democrats).

    But the right is more organized than the left — no surprise there.

  5. Phil says:

    I agree in a limited way with the other commenters, that some Tea Party ire has indeed been directed towards Republicans. Republican politicians who are willing to work with Democrats, or who are not small-government champions, have been punished. Basically the Tea Party is mad at all Democrats and some Republicans, so saying "Democrats and Republicans alike" is misleading, but it's certainly true that the TP has targeted some Republicans too.

    I think Morgan exaggerates the political coherence of the Tea Party's small-government stance. Some of them are opposed to entitlements programs, yes, but many of them don't want the government to decrease Medicare benefits, or Social Security. Some people don't even have internally consistent beliefs on their own, and when you mix them together you have an odd hodgepodge.

  6. Chris: You write:

    It's funny how, pre-election, political scientists were all predicting 20-25 seat losses for the Ds based on the economy and unified government, and telling us that the unpopularity of the agenda would make no difference. Then they lose 65 seats, and it's just external circumstances beyond Obama's control.

    I don't know what you're talking about when you're talking about "political scientists." I'm a political scientist, and as early as September, 2009, I was writing that the numbers were predicting a Republican House takeover in 2010. In February, 2010, I updated this prediction to "The Democrats are gonna get hammered. These posts were based on the work of political scientists Joe Bafumi, Bob Erikson, and Chris Wlezien. I also cited Doug Hibbs's similar forecast in September.

    So if you think that "political scientists were all predicting 20-25 seat losses for the Ds," then, lemme tell ya, you're listening to the wrong political scientists!

  7. ceolaf says:

    1) Lilla's view of the tea party are much more nuanced than that. And his views are not hard to find. In fact, the first hit for a google search of of lilla tea party is:

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/may

    2) The Ali story, of course, is a cheap flourish. I'm actually surprised to see it in his work. It is not really his style. It's a perfectly fine anecdote, if put in proper context. But ending with it point undermines the thoughtfulness of the rest of his piece.

    3) Lilla doesn't claim that the Tea Party supports both Dems and GOPpers. Rather, he claims that it's ire is directed at both. And, to be fair, that's true. Not equally directed, of course. But directed at both, nonetheless. So, you're extrapolating unfairly from what he actually wrote.

  8. Ceolaf:

    I don't agree with Lilla's attribution of the 2010 election results to political messaging. But I can well imagine that Lilla knows a lot more than me when it comes to analyzing the ideas underlying various political movements (including the Tea Party activists).

    Regarding the "directed at Democrats and Republicans alike" claim: I still don't buy it. As far as I've heard, the Tea Party activists dislike all Democrats (with the possible exception of Zell Miller, or maybe Joe Lieberman on a good day) and they dislike some Republicans, with this dislike occurring when said Republicans aren't conservative enough. This sounds a lot to me like the right wing of the Republican party.

    I read Lilla's article again, though, and I realize that I do agree with one of his key points, which is that people vote for what they feel is good for the country, not for what they think is their personal interests. I think this all-important point is commonly misunderstood by would-be sophisticates who naively think that everyone is looking out for himself.

  9. Gabe says:

    "Huh? The Tea Party activists are conservative Republicans. Are there any Democrats that the Tea Party participants like? Zell Miller, maybe?"

    I'm not sure that "ire directed at … Republicans" is the same as a favorable view of Democrats. I think that's the contrapositive, or the converse, or something like that. Either way, dislike of the Republicans does not necessarily imply like of the Democrats.

    I don't think it's inconsistent for the Tea Party to hold scorn towards the Democrats for their big government social welfare programs, while simultaneously directing ire towards the Republicans for their war-mongering (for example). In general, as I understand the movement, they are dissatisfied with the "business as usual" in Washington, which means both major political parties.

  10. Andrew Gelman says:

    Gabe: I see no evidence that the Tea Party activists are directing ire toward the Republicans for their war-mongering. They are directing ire to RINOs (i.e., people who are not true conservative Republicans). As conservative Republicans, the Tea Party activists are displeased with all (or almost all) Democrats and also with the centrist aspects of the Republican party. Of course they weren't happy with business as usual in Washington when the Democrats controlled the presidency and both houses of congress. All of this is 100% consistent with the Tea Party being a group of conservative Republicans.

  11. Gabe says:

    You are correct, I'm not sure why I wrote war-mongering. I would agree that the TP'ers are upset with RINO's, or Republicans who haven't demonstrated what the Tea Party considers fiscal restraint or fiscal conservatism.

    Either way, I still believe that "ire towards Republicans" is not necessarily the same thing as "liking Democrats".

  12. Bob Carpenter says:

    Unfortunately, the alternative to "tax and spend" seems to be "borrow and spend", as pioneered by Ronald Reagan:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:US_Federal_Debt

    Borrow-and-spend has never struck me as fiscally responsible, but then I'm neither an economist nor a political scientist.