tea party research and the public sphere

Warning at the outset: this is going to be a LONG post!

Early last year, my friend Steven Tepper and I were talking about the Tea Party Movement (TPM) and how best to understand its rise and appeal. We were genuinely curious about it: to what extent it was a new phenomenon as opposed to a recapitulation of familiar political formations; the relationship between cultural and political dispositions and practices; the extent to which it reflected a focus for members to identify with as opposed to a cluster of political preferences. Based on our curiosity, we invited two terrific colleagues–Neal Caren and graduate student Sally Morris–to join us in a research project.

It’s a great team – the four of us have quite different but complementary skills and approaches, and we came up with several approaches. I took a semiannual North Carolina poll I’ve been commissioning for years and added several cultural and TPM-specific questions to the spring 2010 poll. We added a full Tennessee sample as well. We tried to turn it into a panel study by recontacting respondents for the fall ’10 survey, with mixed results. And we placed some comparison questions on the spring ’11 survey as well; these remain to be analyzed. Sally attended a TPM event in Washington, NC, did careful observations and informative interviews, and took many pictures. These efforts resulted first in our article in Contexts, “Cultures of the Tea Party,” and then in our ASA paper of the same name presented in Vegas.

At the ASA session, someone (anybody know who it was?) stood up and said that we (and others) were giving the TPM too much credit; “of course” it was just about the enormous funding provided by the Koch Brothers et al., and was therefore not authentic. Well, you know how I feel about authenticity, and I pointed out that what the questioner saw as inauthentic due to funding and publicity on the right, we call “fundraising” and “organizing” on the left.

Although there is quite a bit of good research already out there on TPM support and membership, including another whole panel of ASA inexplicably scheduled at the same time as ours (ahem!), and including some very interesting survey work by Chris Parker at UW, our paper was selected by ASA for a media feature. ASA put out a press release about the paper, and we spoke to several reporters of various sorts. The study was covered by left-wing blogs (also here) and mainstream media, even in Spanish and Portuguese, but the biggest splash has been on the right-wing blogs.

I was also interviewed on a Raleigh right-wing radio show; the host was very pleasant, friendly, and even interested, until my interview was done and he interviewed a Raleigh TPM organizer. If you ever wondered how well people understand sampling: the host said to the TPM person, after I hung up (paraphrasing): “Well, I don’t know how much you can get from 4,500 people and ten interviews and one rally. Did they strike true to you? Are you afraid of change?” Apparently a sample of 1 is more reliable than one of 4,500! The respondent also acknowledged that the TPM was nostalgic: “We want to go back 200 years, to where our country was founded and say it was working great then, let’s get back to those values!” I leave it to you, dear reader, to parse the meaning of that statement.

Apparently virtually nobody is able to grasp the concept of collaborative research; with a couple of exceptions, all the questions and comments have been directed to me. The vast majority of blog entries have referred to me, alone, as the author.

A pair of columnists who apparently reproduce what Ron Jacobs and Eleanor Townsley call the “dueling host format” in print–Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk–alternately called the study “obvious” and a “cartoon.”

Also, apparently virtually nobody has bothered to actually read the paper, even though it was made available through ASA and on my website. No less a luminary than Jonah Goldberg promised to do so, but has apparently not bothered. Goldberg objects, saying that authoritarian and libertarian tendencies are logically inconsistent. This is a common objection on many of the blogs, but it is one that is answered in the paper itself. The answer is two-fold:

  1. Different people may have answered higher on the authoritarian than the libertarian dimensions and vice versa; there remains substantial variation among respondents; also,
  2. As is carefully documented in the paper, the questions measuring these dispositions are not in fact self-contradictory. These are ideal-typical dimensions based on how real people answered real questions! So, when Goldberg asks “how does [authoritarianism] reconcile itself with the ‘libertarianism’ in the next bullet point?”, that question needs to be put to the TPM supporters who gave the answers, not answered in the abstract!

One right-wing blog at least got the reference, but not because it was in the paper (which it was) but because apparently at some point along the way he paid attention in a social science class of some sort. He recognized Adorno (major props!) though sadly in a very thin, unsophisticated reading.

By far the most common “argument” has been ad hominem. Essentially this argument takes two forms. The first is simply the a priori decision that all sociologists, or all academics, or everybody at UNC, or whatever, is outrageously liberal and therefore any study they produce is by definition incorrect. Consider this gem, sent by email from stlworker5@gmail.com:

As a Tea Partier, I was dismayed at the findings of your recent study. Not because I think your findings are valid. Quite the contrary. Having noticed that you are a professor of sociology, the motives of your study are plain as day. You obviously set out to paint the Tea Party in a negative light. How do I know that from your credentials? Simple. You’re a sociologist and a professor. It may as well be law that sociologists are liberals and the ivory tower only serves as an echo chamber.
Enough about your bias though.
The reason I wrote is to request a copy of the actual questions you asked. I tried to make sense of the charts at the end of your report, but they are useless unless I can analyze the actual questions.
Not that I actually expect you to provide the questions you asked as I’m fairly certain the questions and choices of answers were designed to provide you with your desired results.
It doesn’t hurt to ask though.

(Of course I sent him the link to the questions. He hasn’t responded.)

Another, more sympathetic, correspondent involved in the conversation at something called snarkish.com wrote asking for details, but asked if we had a way to control for “investigator bias,”

like some particular procedure for gathering the data or arranging for “blindness” of some sort, or making sure the wording or administration of the survey questions didn’t set up a situation where the subjects could tell what the researchers wanted to hear. Unfortunately, this will be a sticking point with other participants in the snarkish.com discussion since they have found the public records of the political contributions of Dr. Perrin and Dr. Caren:


and they consider those all the proof they need of personal political agendas in the research project. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if you know from your own experience how intransigent presumptions of bias in social science research can be.

This form of argument ad hominem is, sadly, practiced on the left as well as the right, where “follow the money” is a substitute for substantive analysis. I happened to be teaching Popper’s “The Logic of the Social Sciences” the day that email came in, so I recommended it to the correspondent who, to his credit, looked it up. The bottom line: the reason the procedures and questions are reported is so the actual science–not the scientists–can be evaluated. The objectivity of science is the result of the methods, not of the objectivity of the scientist.

Nevertheless, many of the blogs feature links to my and Neal’s political donations, in many cases as the only evidence whatsoever. No need to engage with evidence or data–even though these are readily available–when you can make do with innuendo and snap judgments of character! The editor of the Greensboro News & Record, whom I’ve worked with before on my Letters to the Editor project, posted a quick link; the responses from readers were the same ad hominem claims devoid of any substance. Tom Darby “jus’ hopes Perrin printed his study on toilet paper, so it’s easy to use.” Now that’s some sophisticated critique!

Here’s the thing, though. If we had wanted to engage in a critique of the TPM as interested citizens, there are far meaner things we could have said! Indeed, when pushed, several of the right-wing writers have acknowledged that they basically agree with the authoritarian, libertarian, and even ontologically insecure dimensions, although there is debate as to the nativism claim. We set out to gain a better understanding of how TPM supporters think and feel than is available by turning on the TV or reading the blogs. I think we succeeded in that, and as we analyze the newer data I expect we’ll develop a better understanding over time. The blogs are so committed to seeing everything as pro- or con, left or right, that they are apparently unwilling to bother to actually learn something new.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

9 thoughts on “tea party research and the public sphere”

  1. I hope this doesn’t come across as trivializing your experience, but I must admit my first thought was “and I thought student reviews were mean!”

    I was honored your team chose to publish early results in my section for Contexts, and I remain a big supporter of the project. I think research on the Tea Party is important, although I worry that such timely topics attract the worst sort of people–within and outside the academy. Your team will be among the exceptions–I understand Brayden King (of sister site OrgTheory) and your own Tina Fetner are also working on a great, related project.

    Maybe it’s time for a Scatterplot featurette? Keep up the hard work.


  2. A few years ago I donated $125 to the GWB Presidential Library as a result of coming up short on a personal vow I made regarding exercise. Maybe sociologists who study conservative groups should try this strategy because, at worst, they’ll end up providing moments of confusion to critics who want to list their political donations. Plus: you get on some interesting mailing lists.


    1. Or just donate under the reporting level? Or only give to “other” interests.
      How accurate are those lists anyway? I looked up several people I know to have contributed and only a few showed up on the list. (Or maybe they didn’t really donate the amount they told me). However, I kinda felt dirty looking people up, like when I learned that all the faculty at my public institution had their salaries online and I perused those for too long.


  3. It’s useful for all of us to deal with a broader public about our work, at least sometimes. Things that seem very obvious to social scientist (e.g., sampling) are, obviously, not so to a broader public. One problem is in public education, but it’s more than that.

    I appreciate your recognition that some people on the left have a similar, albeit countervailing, theory of the universe which (similarly) flattens out people they (we) don’t agree with. (I recently had something in the Washington Post, and it seemed like some large percentage of the comments responded only to my title [chosen by the editors] to infer my slant.)

    So, what does this mean for a) democracy? and b) public sociology?


  4. We are indeed working on something, and from your description, I think our approaches are complementary. We’re still working at ours, though, so we’ll have to put off a Scatterplot Tea Party Research Deathmatch for at least a few weeks.

    As for David’s stuff on WaPo, I recommend it, comments and all!


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