Power in (Small) Numbers
Responding to the recent decision by House Republicans to agree to a two-month extension of the payroll tax cuts — after an unseemly and unnecessary game of chicken during which, achieving the seeming impossible, Congressional GOPers even managed to enrage the Wall Street Journal op-ed page with their obstinacy — Jonathan Chait snarks about a Tea Party death wish:
The payroll tax debacle is now the third suicidal episode undertaken by the House Republicans since they took control of it at the beginning of the year. The first was when they voted almost unanimously for Paul Ryan’s budget, which was filled with grist for attack ads – huge cuts to Medicare, big tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulating Wall Street – despite it having no chance of passing this term. The second was when they played chicken with the debt ceiling and turned a once-routine procedure into a white-knuckle game of chicken with the world economy. And then this week, when they attempted to extract concessions in return for extending the payroll tax holiday, an anti-recessionary measure with strong support from economists, businesses, and voters. These are not just gestures. The right-wingers are really trying to off themselves.
There very well be some kind of latent suicidal impulses motivating the Tea Party caucus. I’m sure there’s an essay or five, collecting dust in some corner of the liberal blogosphere, explaining how Michele Bachmann’s fundamentalism is the outgrowth of a messianic desire for self-immolation. But if we could table that line of inquiry for just a minute, I’d like to highlight a new paper from some Georgetown political scientists on the Tea Party and their motivations.
Titled “Tea Party Politics: a Story of Activists and Elites,” [PDF] the paper, by Michael Bailey, Jonathan Mummolo, and Hans Noel of Georgetown University, attempts to determine what’s the strongest influence on Tea Party Congresspersons’ behavior: activists, elite self-ID, constituent opinion, or group endorsements. Their answer is one that should make any dedicated group of radicals — not matter how small — shine bright with optimism. Behold the return of the revolutionary vanguard:
Our analysis points to activism as the most important way in which the movement might have influence. Republican candidates in districts with more Tea Party activists performed better in the 2010 general election relative to other Republicans… This ground-level enthusiasm also was associated with legislative changes. On specific votes of interest to the Tea Party, members from districts with high levels of Tea Party activism repeatedly took stands consistent with the movement. The broader implications are clear: organization matters and non-median influences on Congress are alive and well
The story of a small group of dedicated people making a huge impact on the comparably unengaged masses is hardly new. But it’s interesting nevertheless to see just how insignificant the opinions of the people, broadly conceived and superficially measured, really are when it comes to determining politicians’ behavior:
Sympathy toward the Tea Party among ordinary citizens showed no influence on electoral outcomes and virtually no sign of influencing congressional votes. This may be due in part to survey respondents not really understanding the Tea Party or due to their lack of mobilization. The contrast of the consistent evidence that activists matter is striking.
So, basically, this paper would stand as evidence in favor of those who say that the Tea Party is moving the GOP rightwards, and in a way that may cause severe blowback from the electorate-at-large in 2012. But, simultaneously, I’d say these results, if true, shouldn’t lead you to relax and assume that, no matter how many inmates gain hold over the prison’s master key, the sensible middle always wins out in the end. Because, in case you haven’t noticed, the Tea Party types have managed to get more than a few things done during their short time in office.