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IGERT trainee co-authors highly-cited new book


Professor Theda Skocpol and NSF-funded student Vanessa Williamson, participants in the IGERT Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality & Social Policy at Harvard University, have co-authored a much-cited new book, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (Oxford University Press, 2012). Congressional scholar Thomas Mann has described the work as “the richest, most nuanced portrait of the Tea Party since it burst on to the political scene in early 2009…a must-read book.”

Skocpol, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and of Sociology at Harvard, and Williamson, now beginning her fourth-year as a Ph.D. candidate in Government and Social Policy, have produced an analysis that tackles an important set of social science questions concerning our understanding of the Tea Party, how the Tea Party remade Republican conservatism leading into the 2010 elections, and the consequences for the Republican Party, American democracy, and public policy. As the authors note, the Tea Party’s sudden emergence in 2009 challenged conventional assumptions about how US politics would play out after the 2008 elections and did not square easily with traditional political science conceptualizations of third parties, social movements, or popular protests. Through careful exploration of the evidence, Skocpol and Williamson advance the argument that the Tea Party, “considered in its entirety…is neither a top-down creation nor a bottom-up explosion.” Rather, “it is best understood as a combination of three intertwined forces:” grassroots activism, national funders and free-market advocacy groups whose long-term goals lie in remaking the Republican Party, and conservative media hosts (pp. 12-13). The book details and explores each of these in considerable depth.

At the same time, Skocpol and Williamson have aimed to develop a much richer, deeper understanding of the local Tea Party groups by “observing real groups in action” and meeting and talking extensively with individual Tea Party supporters in different parts of the country. The result is a rich and nuanced account, with often surprising evidence that overturns many common stereotypes. As Nicholas Lemann of Columbia University noted in reviewing the book, it is “an excellent demonstration of the power of first-hand research to add a richness of understanding that survey results can’t provide.” It is a work of social science research that has reached a broad readership beyond academic circles.

From a multidisciplinary perspective, what makes The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism particularly notable is the breadth of its evidence and research methods. The authors have delved into the public records and national social survey data familiar to political scientists, but more unusually, have also deeply probed the views and workings of Tea Party groups through extensive qualitative research—methods more commonly deployed in neighboring IGERT disciplines—including observation of Tea Party meetings and events across the country, talking with a variety of people at these events, visits to their homes, and in-depth open-ended personal interviews with Tea Party supporters. As an NSF IGERT-funded doctoral trainee, Williamson was able to pursue a remarkable opportunity as a second-year Ph.D. student to co-develop a book idea and carry out a prodigious national field research project. In her third-year, Williamson gained experience presenting the results of their research, both jointly and independently, in a variety of fora and national media interviews.

Skocpol and Williamson have also amassed a comprehensive and original dataset of local Tea Party groups in all 50 states. Taking a relentlessly exhaustive web-based approach, the authors and several undergraduate research assistants tracked down every Tea Party group in all 50 states with a presence on the internet. In doing so, Skocpol and Williamson were able to identify many active groups missed in previous identification efforts. The Tea Party sites themselves—featuring blogs, meeting announcements, and discussion boards—provided rich and largely untapped sources of information about Tea Party views, policy issue priorities, and engagement in local political races. To discuss the book, Skocpol and Williamson have appeared together in a number of public and university events, including talks at Brown University, Duke University, the Politics and Prose Bookstore (Washington, DC), Harvard Book Store, and the Cambridge Forum. Additionally, Williamson has also spoken in academic panels and seminars at Columbia University, the Institute of Politics Forum at the Harvard Kennedy School, and Allegheny College. The book has been widely reviewed and was named an Editor’s Choice selection in the New York Times Book Review in January 2012.

Address Goals

This research examines an important set of social science questions concerning the Tea Party’s emergence in U.S. electoral politics and the larger implications for the Republican Party, American democracy, and the country’s public policy.

The book is an important piece of social science research that has, at the same time, generated a broad public readership and discussion. The book addresses an important contemporary political phenomenon, a movement with potentially significant implications for the American political process and the future evolution of U.S. public policy.