The Tea Party’s meteoric rise in the wake of Barack Obama’s election in 2008 took almost everyone by surprise. What started as a fringe movement quickly became something that everyone in politics was talking about, whether or not they agreed with the ideas that the Tea Party proposed. Media coverage exploded, arguably culminating in the 2010 midterm elections when Tea Party-backed candidates mopped up the floor with their Democratic competitors.
Personally, I am fascinated by the Tea Party. While my political leanings could not be further away from the Conservative movement, the way in which it was able to network and mobilize its members serves as an interesting case sample to examine the ways in which identity, particularly along political lines, can get people to the polls en masse.
As Williamson et al clearly detailed in their article “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” identity played a very large role in the movement’s success. What exactly the members identified as, however, was and is somewhat ambiguous. The largest distinction of identity that the authors were able to make was that between those who work and those who do not. However, as the authors detail, the definitions of “working” and “non-working” for Tea Party members did not necessarily line up with the dictionary definition of the terms.
How was the Tea Party movement—collectively and among its individual, local groups—able to construct this dichotomy? Mary Bernstein’s “Celebration and Suppression: The Strategic Uses of Identity by the Lesbian and Gay Movement” gives us some useful tools with which to find out.
Bernstein discusses the concept of “identity deployment,” which refers to the way in which individuals and collective movements utilize their identity to achieve their goals. Though the Tea Party movement presented itself to the media as a political one in favor of changing laws to promote smaller government and fiscal responsibility, which certainly appears to have been the movement’s overall goal, it seems to me that identity was deployed as the means of achieving that goal. Membership in the movement is predicated more upon belonging to a certain identity rather than advocating for political goals. The identity in question, then, is that of being a worker. But what exactly does that mean for the typical Tea Partier?
As Williamson points out, several of the people that were interviewed for her article admitted to knowing or having someone in their household who does not presently work, whether that be because they are retired, disabled or otherwise. How, then, are they able to identify with the label of “worker” if they themselves are not able to work?
Williamson asserts that there are two groups Tea Partiers do not identify with: illegal immigrants and lazy youth. The article goes on to explain that by juxtaposing themselves against these two groups, who they believe do not deserve assistance provided by the government, they are able to define themselves as workers even if they themselves are receiving assistance from the government. Some of the interviewees said that they were merely collecting back on what they had paid in for. Others seemed to imply that because they were born in the United States or because they had worked in the past that they then deserved government assistance, unlike illegal immigrants or the lazy youth who have not worked a day in their lives.
Bernstein talks about two different modes of operation within the concept of identity deployment, which is to say that there are two different ways that identity can be used as a means to mobilize people and change things, whether they be laws or cultural ideas.
The first is what Bernstein calls identity for education, which typically seeks to change policy and does so by literally educating others about the identity of the group in question. This strategy tends to emphasize similarities between the mobilized group and the groups with which they interact.
The second is what Bernstein calls identity for critique, which aims to change cultural ideas or norms and accomplishes this by putting forth the group’s identity as a means to challenge the cultural status quo and hopefully change it. This strategy, contrary to identity for education, emphasizes differences between the mobilized group and others.
Using Bernstein’s language and concepts, the Tea Party movement’s usage of identity as a mobilizer can be better understood. Based on quotes from Tea Party members themselves, it is clear that their identity as “workers” and their opposition to non-workers played a major role in their level of political activity. But how did those identities come into existence in the first place?
Williamson points to Fox News as being a major contributor to both the creation and the distribution of these identities. While no particular examples are given in the Williamson article, one need only search for Fox News Tea Party coverage on YouTube to find evidence that Fox helped shape the identity of the Tea Party. It appears that most of Fox’s coverage of the movement was presented as identity for critique, emphasizing the differences between members of the Tea Party and everyone outside of it.
Fox fostered a sense of inclusivity among its viewers and gave the small, local Tea Party groups scattered across the nation a central hub in which they could feel closer as a group and know that there are others out there like them. In other words, they could identify with each other. Fox also utilized their own anchors—such as Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly—to further their goals of social/cultural change through large events and rallies, tactics typical of a movement using the identity for critique strategy.
It is interesting to note that, though the overall movement aimed to change policy to reduce government spending, the movement relied upon identity for critique ideals in order to gather support and change policy.
This is unusual because, as Bernstein explains, identity for critique strategies typically are not used to enact policy change. They are instead intended to change the social climate and status quo, to lift up one group’s standing or appearance in the larger society.
Yet, the Tea Party movement and Fox News took advantage of identity politics, as well as racial and generational tensions, in order to dramatically change the makeup of the Republican party’s representation in government, like sugar dissolving in sweet tea.