The Ideology of Populism: How the Tea Party Movement Complicates Jost’s Theory of Ideology

Ushered in by a wave of caffeinated populism, the Republican Scott Brown—the anointed Tea Party Candidate—upset Martha Coakley, his Democratic rival, in a heated race for the Massachusetts Senate seat.  The passion of the electorate—whether in the form of Republican anger (followed by excitement) or Democratic anxiety (followed by disappointment)—was palpable.  Take Paul Tusini, who recounted at a Brown rally: “I can’t sleep.  It’s all I can think about.”  Or consider Robert Fox, a Brown supporter who traveled from Wisconsin to Boston to participate in his first campaign, not only because he was angry about ObamaCare, but also because he “hate[d] the imbalance of power in Washington” and “the abuse of the system.”  The Massachusetts election demonstrated that ideology remains a vibrant force in the modern political climate.

To be sure, the ideological fervor of U.S. politics is no longer surprising.  Political polarization between liberals and conservatives is humdrum—only newsworthy when it reaches a feverish pitch.  What is noteworthy about Brown’s victory, however, is the brand of ideology that brought him to power: not old-fashioned conservatism and its predilection for the status quo, but anti-establishment Tea Party populism.

The Tea Party movement—and its triumph in Massachusetts—should make us hesitant to organize U.S. political ideologies merely in terms of the warring poles of “liberalism” and “conservatism.”  This simplistic, binary approach fails to account for the rise of the Tea Party—a movement for which, according to a recent poll, 41 percent of Americans have a positive view, compared to 35% for the Democratic Party and 28% for the Republican Party.  (The movement is gaining so much steam that, according to another poll, a Tea Party presidential candidate would beat out both the Democratic and Republican challenger in a vote by an independent polity.)  In fact, excessive emphasis on the U.S. liberal-conservative divide not only blurs political reality, but also lulled the Massachusetts Democratic Party into a false sense of optimism.  Expecting that the Blue State would vote blue, Coakley et al. neglected to run a rigorous campaign.  Matt Bai of the New York Times recently criticized the erroneous dichotomy:

[There is a] fast-growing swath of voters who can summon no affinity for either party. As in other aspects of modern American life, brand allegiance in politics is at an all-time low; more than a third of Americans (and more than half of all Massachusetts voters) identify themselves as independents rather than as members of the blue team or the red. The most prevalent ideology of the era seems to be not liberalism nor conservatism so much as anti-incumbency, a reflexive distrust of whoever has power and a constant rallying cry for systemic reform.

Not even academia is safe from the conventional, binary empahsis.  In the “End of the End of Ideology,” for example, Professor John Jost declares that ideology is far from dead—but employs the liberal-conservative distinction to prove his point.  The “weak” version of his thesis is that political attitudes arise from dispositional factors (e.g., psychological needs and desires) and situational circumstances.  This conclusion is insightful and non-controversial.  As ideology is grounded in human nature, ideology is and will remain a moving political force—a claim to which a restless a Brown supporter, such as Mr. Tusini, would attest.

Nonetheless, Josts’s article appears to stand for a more provocative proposition—i.e., the “strong” version of Jost’s piece: The political ideology of “liberalism” and “conservatism” each has a distinct, social psychological underpinning.  For example, one’s “attitude toward inequality” and “attitude toward social change versus tradition” can explain and predict whether one is likely to identify as a “liberal” or a “conservative”; meanwhile, whether one identifies as liberal or conservative can explain and predict how one is likely to vote or to think.  As Jost declares:

There is now the possibility of explaining ideological differences between right and left in terms of underlying psychological needs for stability versus change, order versus complexity, familiarity versus novelty, conformity versus creativity, and loyalty versus rebellion.

Jost further suggests that the liberal-conservative divide—with its social psychological foundation—is the dominant force in U.S. political culture:

Public opinion polls show the nation to be sharply divided along ideological lines, and these lines predict political outcomes to a remarkable degree. . . . The argument that most of the population is impervious to the liberal–conservative distinction was probably never on solid empirical ground, but it seems increasingly untenable in the current (red state vs. blue state) political climate.

Put crudely, the strong version of Jost’s thesis is that liberals and conservatives think differently.  Jost concedes that a liberal could turn more conservative in a specific situation (e.g., in response to fearful stimuli, such as 9/11); even then, however, the liberal-turned-conservative is now acting in a “conservative” manner—that is, the liberal-conservative dichotomy retains explanatory and predictive power.

Yet, Brown’s election and the Tea Party movement reveal that using “liberalism v. conservatism” as a conceptual starting point to analyze U.S. political ideology is theoretically and practically problematic.  Although the movement corroborates the weak version of Jost’s thesis, the movement undermines the emphasis and the tone of the strong version.

First, consider the theoretical issue.  If the liberal-conservative distinction defines the current political landscape, as Jost implies, on what side of the left-right line should we place the Tea Party movement?  On the one hand, no serious political observer could deny that much of the Tea Party platform falls right of center.  Brown, for his own part, opposes taxes, same-sex marriage, gun control and “lawyering up terrorists.”  On the other hand, the animating ideology of the Tea Party movement is anti-establishment populism—which, according to Jost, is the hallmark of liberalism and the antithesis of conservativism.  Columnist David Brooks notes that the movement is against “big government, big business, big media,” and the “concentrated power of the educated class.”  (And, as the New York Times reported yesterday, the Republic Party itself is uncertain how to handle the Tea Party.)  The movement feeds into the liberal psychological need for “change”; the movement markets itself as force of “complexity,” “novelty,” “creativity,” and “rebellion”—the precise psychological attributes that characterize the typical liberal.  Brown thus ran as a maverick, an “independent voter and an independent thinker” who would “look out for the best interests of the people of Massachusetts”—“it’s not Ted Kennedy’s seat,” he reminded us, “it’s the people’s seat.”

Here’s the problem: If we, like Jost, limit our analysis to the divergent social psychology of liberalism and conservativism, then we give short shrift to the broad, complex, and colorful spectrum of U.S. political ideology.  For the sake of parsimony, we misrepresent the political reality.  Populism cuts across liberalism and conservativism; its cognitive and situational underpinning is, too, worthy of study.  For example, if the ideology of the Tea Party is marked (1) by a psychological preference of social change over tradition (like liberalism, but unlike conservatism) and (2) by a psychological apathy toward inequality (like conservatism, but unlike liberalism), then does the average populist think like a liberal?  Like a conservative?  A bit of both?

Second, consider the strategic angle.  An overly simplistic outlook of political behavior (e.g., full rationality) may cause a politician to make a non-optimal decision; likewise, an overly simplistic outlook of political ideology (e.g., the liberal-conservative distinction) may cause a politician to falter.  In fact, acceptance of the strong version of Jost’s thesis is one reason that Coakley lost.  To explain: If we assume that the average voter has a robust, predictable, and systematic ideological commitment to either liberalism or conservatism, then it is reasonable to infer that a State that is predominantly liberal will most likely go Democrat.  A liberal person has a distinct psychological makeup; unless a situational variable moves her toward acting in a conservative fashion, it is safe to assume that she will act in a liberal way.  So, a deeply blue Massachusetts should go blue.  Casual observers, pundits, politicians, and White House officials alike were operating under the liberal-conservative assumption.  Primed to expect the conventional, binary liberal-conservative divide, we were shocked.  Moreover, the Massachusetts Democratic Party and the national Democratic Party ran a half-hearted campaign against Brown—assuming that victory at the primary level ensured victory at the state level.  Blinded by their faith in the liberal-conservative distinction, Coakley et al. ignored a grassroots weed growing in their blue home field: Tea Party populism.  The political terrain is complex.  Until we release our penchant for parsimony, the Tea Party will grow under the radar—for better or for worse.

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