graduate student research

Doctoral candidates examine Tea Party movement


Tea Partier with sign: "I want an America that my dad remembers"

Nostalgia for a lost America was a prevalent theme at Tea Party events.

Doctoral candidates Colin Lingle and Damon Di Cicco spent the summer of 2010 interviewing Tea Party supporters and attending their rallies, trying to get an idea of what it means to be a Tea Partier. From Seattle to Arizona to Washington, D.C., they racked up more than 5,000 miles on Lingle’s Toyota Corolla.

“Because of the way the Tea Party is organized and the powerful ideas they draw on, it’s kind of like catnip for media,” said Lingle. Lingle and Di Cicco were drawn to this topic of political communication because they wanted to find out directly from Tea Party supporters what their motivations are, instead of relying on the media to tell the story.

After the 2008 election, Tea Party events started taking place across the country, with members describing themselves as a citizens movement opposed to “entrenched Washington interests.” In one sense, it can certainly be considered an actual ground-up movement, as it is comprised of some people who identify as politically independent, some who are first-time political participants, and some who identified with other, primarily conservative, political parties. There are also large political organizations, such as FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, that provide varying levels of support to some (but not all) groups, whether in the form of conference training, printed materials, or online activism guides.

In part because of the relative rarity of conservative protest movements, the Tea Party has attracted a good deal of media attention over the last two years. And as with almost all protest coverage, whatever the political orientation, much of it focuses on surface issues. “We wanted to see how close or different actual on-the-ground attitudes and opinions were,” said Lingle. “In some ways we saw close correlations between what the media was reporting and what people were telling us, but in other ways there was a big distinction between the two.”

Throughout their trip, Lingle and Di Cicco recorded dozens of conversations with Tea Party supporters across the country, and interviews continue post-election via telephone. Over the summer, they contacted the interviewees mainly over the Internet, using primary networks of Tea Party organizations such as teapartypatriots.org, or teapartynation.com. This research was funded by a gift to UW from a supporter of the Department who wanted someone to undertake an unbiased exploration of the Tea Party movement.

With this in mind, Lingle and Di Cicco emphasized to interviewees that their objective was to simply be good listeners, and report honestly and accurately what they hear. “We have worked very hard to meet an academic ideal of stepping aside and letting people tell us what they want to tell us,” said Lingle. “When we do interviews, our job is just to go out and listen. That has been a really valuable place to have this conversation from.”

Lingle and Di Cicco found that people were willing to be interviewed and eager to share their ideals. The researchers questioned Tea Party participants about who they are, how they became involved in the movement, and what political activity they had done previously. They also asked the interviewees to describe the movement, and talk about what the Tea Party is trying to achieve.

Lingle and Di Cicco encountered a range of individual viewpoints, but common themes in almost every venue included those of limited government, free markets and fiscal responsibility. “The people we talked to emphasized a distinction between social and economic issues, and there is absolutely a lot of concern about the direction the country is going. That was a message that came across loud and clear,” said Lingle.

One story heard again and again was that of frustration with the media. Lingle and Di Cicco recorded many interviews in which Tea Party supporters felt a disconnect between what they believed to be true and what the media were showing.

From what they saw during their trip, Lingle notes that certain media images of the Tea Party have basis in the truth. “There are absolutely groups that carry provocative signs and organize events to attract media attention,” he said, but at the same time, “there are also people who are not interested in that kind of attention and are more interested in discussing their ideas about reinvigorating a kind of patriotism they feel has been lost.”

Lingle says that most everyone that he and Di Cicco spoke to was passionate about the United States. Participants at events clearly felt a sense of patriotism that was profound and meaningful. The iconography of this patriotism was abundant everywhere they went, through the Pledge of Allegiance, the American flag, and invocations of the Founding Fathers.

“While our news media portray a very polarized country, and to a certain degree that is true, there is also a lot of sincere political talk and that is never a bad thing. There was a lot of national pride, and people are very serious about their patriotism,” said Lingle. At the same time, an exclusive emphasis on just a few key themes can limit the scope of discussion. “While all the events we attended were open to the public, these were relatively cohesive groups, and the agenda in one part of the country would have matched closely with those in other places.”

Over the summer, Tea Party supporters were particularly focused on November’s midterm election, which produced a significant shift toward conservatives in Congress. Tea Party members often spoke of getting others involved and educating people on what the Tea Party stood for. In Lingle’s opinion, it seems their enthusiasm had some influence on the outcome of the election. “The Tea Party set the tone for the election with an agenda that resonated with a lot of voters, even some who wouldn’t identify with the Tea Party themselves,” he said.

In August, Lingle and Di Cicco attended Glenn Beck’s “Rally to Restore Honor” in Washington, D.C., which featured Sarah Palin and other conservative speakers. Though it was not a Tea Party event itself, thousands of Tea Party supporters attended, hosting events and rallies in the days immediately after. In October, the researchers had the opportunity to visit D.C., for a second time, returning to hear a different view of the state of the country, at the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. The October event served in part as a response to Beck’s rally, and was also a jab at news media and the political divisiveness it can foster.

“As different as the Tea Partiers and the Stewart/Colbert rally participants are politically, they share some of the same motivations and concerns,” said Lingle. For Lingle and Di Cicco, the 215,000 people at Stewart’s rally were similarly troubled about the state of the country, and equally patriotic, even if they expressed their views in different ways. As might be expected at a rally hosted by comedians, there were more people in unusual costumes and more pointedly ironic signs at the Stewart/Colbert event.

Aside from a traffic jam in Nevada that made Lingle “question my purpose in life,” their trip proved to be a rewarding experience. “We got to tour the American West and the nation’s capital, seeing people having conversations on democracy and how we can make this country better. It’s always great to see enthusiastic people participating in the political process,” said Lingle. “At its best, it has the potential to make a more vibrant and open democracy.”

Lingle and Di Cicco continue gathering information on the Tea Party movement for their dissertations, which will encompass interviews from the summer, an extensive content analysis of media coverage on the Tea Party, and other data. Each is pursuing a larger research agenda in political communication, and their work this summer will eventually evolve into publications for academic journals and the general public.