It Was the Economy, Again, Stupid!
The Great Recession, a global economic crisis that began in 2007, generated extensive protest of varying intensity and form in nations around the world. The typical fiscal response to the Great Recession in European states, dubbed austerity, consisted of severe budgets cuts to social safety nets. Austerity programs were commonly seen as having generated a widespread protest response. Those reductions in government spending probably prolonged the European recessions, thus lengthening the European economic recovery and the associated cycle of protests.
In contrast, the newly minted Obama administration’s response to the economic crisis emphasized instead government stimulus targeting ailing sections of the economy. These efforts hastened the pace of economic recovery, but at the same time set off a major wave of protest from the political right. The activists called themselves the Tea Party, a nod to the American protest against taxation held in 1773. On April 15th, 2009—the deadline for Americans to file their federal taxes—more than 1,000 Tea Party protests took place across the United States. The activists called, ironically, for a sharp reduction in spending and deep tax cuts.
In our book, The Rise, Fall and Influence of the Tea Party Insurgency, (Rafail and McCarthy, 2023), we pay particular attention to community-level economic factors as catalysts for action. Together the indicators allowed us to evaluate the essential role of the Great Recession in explaining the rise and fall of the Tea Party. We call the Tea Party an insurgency due to its rapid emergence and quick disappearance, a trajectory we demonstrate was directly linked to the Great Recession and subsequent economic recovery. Most of the earlier research on the Tea Party emphasized the role of status threats, arguing that the social status of the white, conservative, Christians who were overrepresented in the ranks of the insurgency, had been under severe threat by the increasing size and success of minority groups, most notably in the electoral victory of Barack Obama in 2008. Our community level analyses did, indeed, show that Tea Party protests and groups were more common in communities where these threats were more prevalent.
The major contribution of our research is to demonstrate the role of material threats in creating community surges and declines in Tea Party activism. Economic crises like the Great Recession manifest themselves quite differently across local communities. Drawing on a decade of data collection, we looked to see whether patterns of Tea Party protests and the emergence of local chapters, the lifeblood of the insurgency, were disproportionately taking place in areas with heightened economic decline. One of the hallmarks of the Great Recession in the United States was mortgage foreclosures. We found that counties with the lowest concentration of foreclosures, just 6% had a Tea Party protest in 2009, and only 5% had an active Tea Party group. In contrast, for counties in the top quartile of the foreclosure concentration, 32% had protests and 20% had a Tea Party chapter. Visible impacts of the Great Recession, in short, were the best predictors of where the Tea Party found its firmest footing.
Material threats also helped explain the disappearance and decline of Tea Party activism. Tea Party groups dissolved much more quickly when located in a county where unemployment rates fell, or when income inequality lessened. As the economy recovered from the Great Recession, albeit slowly and unevenly, Tea Party activism disappeared in tandem. By 2014, most indicators suggested that a substantial majority of Tea Party chapters had ceased activity completely. We found evidence that 3,587 Tea Party groups ever formed, but only 274 of them showed any signs of public activity by 2014, just 8% of all chapters.
The degree of status threat as well as changes in its level in a community, however, was unrelated to the decline of local Tea Party activism. This is true partially because such indicators change very slowly while the decline of Tea Party activism was rapid. Rather, it appears in hindsight that, communities with large proportions of middle-class white Republicans provided the most fertile soil for Tea Party activism, if not the primary impetus for it.
Why are economic indicators so powerful? The rapid economic changes brought about by the Great Recession gave people a very real sense that their material security was imminently in jeopardy. When political conservatives experienced economic insecurity, they directed their anger at the government, presumed to have caused the turmoil in the first place. But these economic effects were fleeting, eventually, and so too were the material threats so important to understanding the rise and fall of the Tea Party insurgency.
Our compelling analyses reminded us the central importance of economic grievances in understanding protest and social movements across the political spectrum, something that many sociologists, including ourselves, had forgotten. Apologies to James Carville!