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Tea Party Fairness: How the Idea of Proportional Justice Explains the Right-Wing Populism of the Obama Era

  • Author(s): Ekins, Emily Elisabeth
  • Advisor(s): Zaller, John
  • et al.

In this dissertation I argue that the main impulse underlying the tea party movement is a conviction that activist government helps the undeserving at the expense of the truly productive members of society. I say main impulse because racial resentment and other illiberal attitudes also contribute to tea party involvement. But illiberal motives do not play the dominant role that much existing research suggests. When tests are properly conducted, preference for limited government is the strongest and most consistent predictor of tea party support.

Further, I show that the movement catalyzed as a protest against the “bailouts” of undeserving Wall Street banks, other financial institutions, and automakers in 2008, before it acquired the famous tea party moniker from journalist Rick Santelli in February 2009. With repeated fast-paced government interventions in response to the Great Recession and with increasing publicity of the tea party brand early in the administration of President Barack Obama, the movement grew into a heterogeneous coalition, consisting of three distinct groups.

I find the largest of these subgroups has a strongly libertarian flavor and scarcely a whiff of racial animus. Social conservatives comprise another significant group, with strong preferences for limited government and moral traditionalism, and some racially conservative attitudes. Racial conservatives are a substantial subgroup too, but my analysis shows that they are no less motivated by the issue of limited government than others in the movement. These groups are different from one another but came together in the same movement largely because they shared a belief that the federal government had violated basic fairness in its response to difficult economic times.

I go on to argue that tea partiers’ preference for limited government is itself primarily driven by a “reap what you sow” conception of economic justice, rather than, as much tea party rhetoric proclaims, a desire for individual liberty. In the psychological literature on fairness, this conception is called “proportional justice”—the idea that everyone should be rewarded in strict proportion to their achievements and failings, and that government should not shield people from the consequences of their decisions. In sum, I contend the tea party impulse is at its core a demand for what its members see as basic economic fairness.

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