Perspectives on Politics

Research Article

The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism

Vanessa Williamsona1, Theda Skocpola2 and John Coggina3

a1 Harvard University. E-mail:

a2 Harvard University. E-mail:

a3 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.

(Online publication March 15 2011)

Vanessa Williamson is a doctoral student in Government and Social Policy at Harvard University (vwilliam@fas. Her research interests include the political support for, and effects of, taxation and entitlement programs. Before coming to Harvard, she served at the Policy Director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Theda Skocpol is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University and is a former President of the American Political Science Association ( Her work covers an unusually broad spectrum of topics including both comparative politics (States and Social Revolutions, 1979) and American politics (Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States, 1992). Her most recent book is: The Transformation of American Politics: Activist Government and the Rise of Conservatism (2007, with Paul Pierson).

John Coggin is a second-year Master's student in Religion, Ethics, and Politics and Harvard Divinity School ( His research interests include participation of conservative Evangelicals in recent US politics and public attitudes towards Muslims in the United States post-9/11.


The authors are grateful to Robert Putnam, Zaid Munson, Peter Dreier, and Peter Hall for their comments on an earlier version of this article. Anonymous reviewers for this article also provided very valuable feedback and advice.