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The Tea Party movement:

Competing theoretical explanations

in the rise of a contemporary
conservative social movement.

Andrew Schons

Thesis submitted for the Master’s Programme in Politics and International Studies
Department of Government, Uppsala University
May 2011
The central question addressed by this paper is how can we explain the success of the
Tea Party movement? By applying alternative theoretical frameworks to the case of
the Tea Party movement, we conclude that the Organizational-Entrepreneurial model
best accounts for the emergence of the “Tea Partiers” and their rapid ascension into
the national political field. In relation to the “grassroots” and ideological
foundations of competing social movement theories, the success of the movement is
found to be dependent on the efforts of professional social movement organizations
to efficiently manage and allocate the resources necessary for their growth. The
analysis does uncover weaknesses in the Organizational-Entrepreneurial model’s
applicability to the Tea Party movement, namely the ability of its “issue
entrepreneurs” to adequately address the varied points of reference which the
movement represents in order to maintain solidarity and its overall viability. We go
on to propose that the substantive characteristics and contributions of the
“ideological entrepreneur” may prove a suitable compliment to their “issue
entrepreneur” in uncovering how the Tea Party movement has been able to solicit
ongoing support and allegiance in spite of its broad aims and decentralized

I wish to thank my supervisor, Sten Widmalm, who has provided generous amounts
of time and guidance throughout the completion of this thesis.
INTRODUCTION .......................................................................................................................................1
PURPOSE AND AIM.....................................................................................................................................3
LIMITATIONS .............................................................................................................................................4
STRUCTURE OF THIS THESIS ......................................................................................................................5
RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHOD...................................................................................................6
DEFINING THE TEA PARTY MOVEMENT ....................................................................................................6
ALTERNATIVE EXPLANATIONS OF THE TEA PARTY MOVEMENT..............................................................9
BIAS .........................................................................................................................................................12
EXPLANATORY FRAMEWORKS OF SOCIAL MOVEMENTS...................................................13
RESOURCE MOBILIZATION THEORY .......................................................................................................13
Competing approaches within the RMT paradigm ..........................................................................14
THE PROCESSES OF CONTENTIOUS POLITICS ...........................................................................................15
THE PROFESSIONALIZATION OF SOCIAL MOVEMENTS ............................................................................17
“NEW SOCIAL MOVEMENTS” AND SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONISM.............................................................20
THE TEA PARTY PHENOMENON ..............................................................................................................21
ANALYSIS .................................................................................................................................................23
BACKGROUND .........................................................................................................................................23
POLITICAL PROCESSES AND THE SOCIAL NETWORK ...............................................................................23
ORGANIZATIONS, ENTREPRENEURS, AND THEIR “ISSUES”.....................................................................30
NEW CONSERVATIVE SOCIAL MOVEMENT THEORY? ............................................................................38
IMPLICATIONS & CONCLUSIONS....................................................................................................43
OEM CENTRALITY..................................................................................................................................43
OEM AND COLLECTIVE IDENTITIES .......................................................................................................45
IDEOLOGUES AND “IDEOLOGICAL ENTREPRENEURIALSHIP”..................................................................47
CONCLUSION: WE THE PEOPLE?..............................................................................................................50
REFERENCES ..........................................................................................................................................52


Figure 1. Basic model of thesis. ...................................................................................................................7

Figure 2. General dimensions of RMT and NSMT...................................................................................15
Figure 3. Conceptual model of OEM.........................................................................................................18

Table 1. Competing theoretical properties of TPM...................................................................................43

In early February 2009, Mary Rakovich of Fort Myers, Florida, set out to
demonstrate against the Obama administration’s proposed national stimulus package, a
federal attempt to evade a looming global depression by buttressing segments of the
American economy with public funds. Mary picketed outside a rally in which President
Obama and Florida’s Republican Governor were promoting the proposed bill’s passage.
Despite the small turnout of the demonstration (3 people in total), conservative media
outlets latched onto her story, chronicling the recently laid-off autoworker’s flagship
experience in political activism. But something greater was happening.
Across the country in the liberal safe haven of Seattle, Washington, the
disjointed efforts of fellow, like-minded conservatives to display their opposition to the
$787 billion stimulus were under way. As in Florida, this public rally was an informal
occasion, where participants amassed through local means; family, friends, casual
mention by local radio hosts, local political candidates, and local conservative bloggers.
The purpose and form of the demonstrations were not revolutionary; they did not seek
to upend political processes and government institutions as much as they desired to
voice their frustrations and discontent with government action and political programs.
Yet these were the origins of what has become the Tea Party movement (TPM), a
nationwide association of conservatives screaming for fiscal, responsible government
spending and the revitalization of the “freedom” and “liberty” that have seemingly
dissolved in the decade leading to the founding protests of February 2009. While
conservative social movements are by no means a new phenomenon in the
contemporary United States political landscape, the TPM’s drive from an isolated
concept to national prominence is unprecedented.
The TPM’s ascension has not been without its controversies. Its loose
ideological structure, mixed political agenda, and lax organization have arguably aided
its goals as much as they have threatened its legitimacy amongst the American
population. Its affiliation with right-wing and militia groups have suggested racist and
conspiratorial underpinnings of the movement’s growing base of support, creating an air
of suspicion and skepticism among the American public and fueling critic’s claims of
the Tea Party supporter’s radicalization. This exhibits the movement’s loose

membership requirements and organizational structure, characteristics that initially
spurred accusations that the TPM en masse had evolved from the work of Republican
politics thereby diminishing its organic, non-partisan status.
This ambiguity surrounding centralized leadership in the TPM has also led to
increased attention towards an array of high-profile public figures that have become
identified with the TPM, as well as their positions on contentious social issues (e.g.
abortion rights) and United States national and international policy (e.g. immigration
reform). These controversial topics can easily stem the decline and possible dissolution
of conservative movements, posing another dilemma for the Tea Party movement in
achieving and maintaining both focus and solidarity. Despite the onset of internal
conflicts and factions, the perceived grassroots character of the TPM continues to be an
attractive feature to many Tea Partiers, producing an esteemed sense of authenticity,
independence, and solidarity amongst participants in their shared acts of concern and
These apparent contradictions in the evolution and development of the TPM are
mysterious in how the Tea Party diaspora has escaped collapse in the face of increased
pressure to clarify and detail its objections and the means in which it wishes to pursue
them. From the scattered animosity towards the Obama administration’s stimulus bill
has arisen an amalgamation of activists and sympathizers under the “Tea Party”
umbrella seeking the reinstatement of American values and the transformation of public
policy. The complexity of these tasks suggests complicated origins and complicated
explanations beyond the vague and inarticulate responses characteristic of local Tea
Party activists.
So we can then ask the question of how to explain the success of the Tea Party
movement. Research of contemporary social movements in capitalist societies has at
present divided into two opposing theoretical camps: Resource Mobilization theory and
New Social Movement theory. In the case of the Tea Party, neither is a comfortable fit,
indicating a unique and undetermined position for their collective efforts on this
strategy/instrumentalist – culture/identity civil society continuum. For example, while
interim leadership was introduced on a preliminary basis during the movement’s
formative stages as predicted by Resource Mobilization theory, the threat to traditional

identity and culture within the American diaspora was purported as the catalyst of the
movement’s drive and ambition, suggesting the discursive struggles and conflict
purported by New Social Movement theory. The theoretical divide between identity
and coordinated activity was expressed early on in the development of the Tea Party
movement through its organic features and advances through political strata, and has
continued to be stressed and explored as prominent figures in American politics and
society have offered their voice and consent to the Tea Party’s efforts.

Purpose and aim.

The purpose of this paper is to explain the success of the Tea Party movement.
To accomplish this, we will employ the three dominant theories in contemporary social
movement research: the Political Process model (PPM), the Organizational-
Entrepreneurial model (OEM), and New Social Movement theory (NSMT). Each of
these three diverging approaches offers strengths and weaknesses in accounting for
growth and developments of the TPM, a controversial phenomenon in the contemporary
American social and political landscape. Its association with various fringe elements of
society has often overshadowed the gains and ambitions of the Tea Party banner, while
also forcing the group to address the complexity of its structure and political agenda.
As information regarding the origins, development, and demographics of the movement
has slowly surfaced, we can now begin to understand how the TPM progressed into a
solid entity from the isolated participants on which it is based.
While the Political Process model and the Organizational-Entrepreneurial model
represent competing perspectives within the RMT discipline, New Social Movement
theory looks at identity, culture, and symbolic meaning in explaining collective action.
By using available archival materials and published resources, we will track accounts
and empirics of the TPM’s emergence and activities through the lens of each of these
alternative theories in order to understand what elements were present or absent as the
TPM assembled to pursue its determined ends. While the TPM’s mixed agenda and
autonomous groups complicate the collection and evaluation of these materials, in
combining research strategies and materials we can begin to uncover how the Tea Party
has been able to engage in collective action.

While this section does not represent an exhaustive list of weaknesses
encountered in the construction of this paper, it does address a few major issues and
concerns. We foremost need to recognize the hard truth that the youth of the Tea Party
phenomenon has yielded little analytical research. Vennesson partially quells these
concerns: “Case studies sometimes explore subjects about which little is previously
known or phenomena in need of an interpretation that sheds new light on known data,
and their descriptive aspect is invaluable.”1 Such an outlook greatly compliments the
explanatory framework from Graham Allison’s pioneering exercise in case study
research used in this study. In his attempt to explain the events and circumstance within
which the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 occurred, he expresses a desired interest to
“explore the influence of unrecognized assumption upon our thinking about events like
the missile crisis.”2 With this in mind, while great care has been taken to include
reliable and relevant information regarding the onset and growth of the Tea Party
movement, we recognize this study as part of a much broader discussion that exceeds
the limits of this paper.
There have also been diverging accounts of how to gauge and classify levels of
participation and involvement amongst individuals in the TPM. Indeed, one prominent
Tea Party organizer was quoted in their belief that the only limitation to joining in the
effort was a commitment to “individual freedom, fiscal restraint, and respect for our
Constitution.”3 In her comprehensive report on the Tea Party, Zernike (2010) has
provided two forms of membership in the movement in her polling: activist and
supporters. According to Zernike, activists represent the smaller subgroup of supporters
within the Tea Party “who attended the rallies and gave money to Tea Party
organizations.”4 Therefore, when mention is made of TP supporters, this inherently
includes “activists”, while the inverse relationship does not hold true. While these
categories may assume preferential treatment of a resourced based approach in

Vennesson 227
Allison (1971) Preface, V
Courser 5
Zernike 7

explaining the Tea Party movement, Zernike has also gone onto to show that both
activists and supporters share substantive immaterial qualities akin to NSMT, such as an
underlying suspicion of government and other institutions, and a shared sense that “the
country had moved away from the Constitution and that the Republican Party had
moved away from conservative values.”5

Structure of this thesis

The structure of this thesis is divided into several sections. The upcoming
section will discuss the materials used in this study as well as its research design,
including a short description of Allison’s conceptual modeling. In the section that
follows we briefly outline the characteristics and features of the competing theories
mentioned above. From there, we will analyze the explanatory value of the individual
theories in accounting for the Tea Party’s coordinated actions. A discussion on the
findings will then be presented, followed by concluding remarks.

Ibid 151-152

Research Design and Method
This section deals with the methodological issues associated with a case study of
the Tea Party movement. We first look at how to define a successful social movement
and how these measurements are applicable to the TPM. This section also explains why
this paper uses a single case study and why the case of Tea Party movement was chosen
for examination. It describes Allison’s methodological approach invoked within this
project while explaining its value and application in analyzing developments
surrounding the Tea Party movement.

Defining the Tea Party movement

We should first recognize the Tea Party movement as a conservative social
movement. Under this pretense, we follow Blee & Creasap’s (2010) definition of
conservative social movements based on their historical analysis of conservative and
right-wing movements in the United States. Their study has assessed the varied
definitions applied to these categories while distinguishing fringe elements of society
from their mainstream counterparts. As a result, their definition of conservative
movements is defined as “movements that support patriotism, free enterprise capitalism,
and/or a traditional moral order and for which violence is not a frequent tactic or goal”.
In defining the TPM as a success, we apply the logic of Gamson’s (1975)
enduring study of 53 random social movements, a useful criterion in displaying the
preliminary gains of the TPM. His findings indicate two variables for measuring
success: the provision of tangible benefits that meet goals established by the movement
organizations, and the formal acceptance of the movement organization by its main
antagonist as a valid representative of a legitimate set of interests. While the theoretical
approaches outlined below have distinct visions of contemporary social movements,
each may be employed in assessing the achievements of the TPM. The following
model loosely guides this study, which will be examined in greater detail within the
following sections:

Figure 1. Basic model of thesis.

While admitting the loose agenda and goals established by the TPM and the
difficulty in fully documenting the series of events leading to the “tangible gains” and
“legitimacy” of the movement, assorted aims and victories can be documented at
varying levels of the movement’s activities with which we can attach available
empirical materials for analysis. For example, the purposefully chaotic and disruptive
tactics in local city hall meetings have gained local and national attention fostering
recruitment as well as jarring unsuspecting elected officials towards their ouster or
concession. The latter component of “acceptance” within their success is not as easy to
identify given the wide range of responses from society and the polity to the broad and
often unidentifiable scope of TP activities and objectives. However, targeted politicians
(both Democrat and Republican) have been forced to accommodate and at times
concede to the expanding participation, visibility, and influence this conservative
movement has had on their general constituencies in the proposal and formation of
public policy. For example, Tea Partiers have been able to engage public officials in
formal lobbying efforts indicating the movement’s eventual, formal recognition by
members of the political elite it seeks to convert. In this manner, disregarding their
status as a social movement underestimates the movement’s messages and strategic
tactics in gaining the numbers and credibility to pursue its goals. However, their ability
to establish specific goals and acquire institutional legitimacy demands greater inquiry.

The single-case study in explaining success of the Tea Party movement
Regardless, the TPM can be considered an anomaly in its rapid ascent to
American social and political influence. The relevance of this particular case, however,
is not only based on recognizing and working upon the academic contributions to the
social sciences evolved within the United States; the TPM and its wide conservative
base has the potential to affect the “realpolitik” in their desire to propel a viable
presidential candidate into the White House as well as supporting a “Tea Party foreign
policy”.6 Linking academic contributions to ground-level phenomenon is then of the
utmost concern to active members in civil society; “it has real consequences for
movements that may leave them vulnerable to counterattacks.”7
This case study design has both enduring strengths and weaknesses. Yin (2003)
notes that “”how” and “why” questions are more explanatory and likely to encourage
the use of case studies, histories, and experiments as preferred research strategies. This
is because such questions deal with operational links needing to be traced over time,
rather than mere frequencies or incidence.”8 In this manner, we are able to examine
contemporary phenomenon within its “real-life” context, an especially useful technique
when the boundaries separating phenomenon and its context are not immediately
The single-case design of this project also facilitates this bridging of theoretical
and empirical knowledge. Certainly, contemporary social movement research has
placed uncontested value on comparative case studies.9 However, such research has
often returned to acknowledge the contextual agency pertinent to intently studying the
emergence and development of social movements. While also recognizing the common
criticism of lessened generalizability of the context specific, single-case research design
in our case study, we realize at this point that “the challenge is to acknowledge and
uncover its specific meaning, while extracting generalizable knowledge actually or
potentially related to other cases.”10 Under these circumstances we delimit any attempt

Vennesson 225; Lynch (2010); Mead 40-42; Paul (2011)
Pichardo 419
Yin 7, 13
McAdam, McCarthy, & Zald 18-19
Vennesson 226; Moses & Knutsen 139

to expand findings outside the empirical realm of the United States, while allowing
further discussion and analysis to retrieve, contrast, and modify any general

Alternative explanations of the Tea Party movement

The conceptual modeling employed by Allison in his classic analysis of the
Cuban Missile crisis inspires the research design for this study. Within this framework,
he expands upon the traditional practice exercising one theoretical model in the
explanation of a particular case in order to "provide a base for improved explanation
and prediction."11 In his explanatory investigation of the U.S.-Cuba Missile Crisis of
1962, Allison employs three theoretical frameworks to uncover the varied dimensions
within which events unfolded. By introducing multiple frames of reference we can
weigh the benefits and deficits of competing perspectives while uncovering additional
insights of the fundamental yet often unnoticed choices among the categories and
assumptions that channel our thinking about problems like the Tea Party movement.
While the Resource Mobilization approach has been useful in social movement
research, there is strong evidence suggesting that it should be supplemented. Jenkins’
(1983) underscores this point in his argument that the basic model of RMT comprises
“rational actions oriented towards clearly defined, fixed goals with centralized
organizational control over resources and clearly demarcated outcomes that can be
evaluated in terms of tangible gains.”12 However, the Tea Party movement prides itself
on its decentralized tendencies, and its overarching objectives are often elusive and
highly uncertain.13 According to this perspective then, the assumed lapse in centralized
organization as well as the Tea Party movement’s diffuse, and at times incoherent
platform and goals interfere with these basic components of a social movement’s
pursuit of institutional change, stressing the need for an alternative evaluation of the
RMT strategy.

Allison (1969) 690
Jenkins 529
Rasmussen & Schoen 118

In the application of the first model, we try to explain how interpersonal
relations and networks affixed to this framework may account for the Tea Party's
expedited growth and subsequent influence in elections and public policy. Under this
model, actors mobilize locally and expand their network and lateral engagements
through the activities and involvement of third parties thereby increasing their political
efficacy and charges of political and social change. The second model focuses not on
these interpersonal ties but rather on the professional organization of the SM. The
success of a SM is dependent on its ability to acquire and organize its resources
effectively as it pursues its goals in a system built on competition and limited resources.
The third model seeks to uncover the common culture and identity attached to the Tea
Partiers that has ignited their multipronged efforts against "big government". In this
fashion, government activity has interfered with the collective control of culture and
meaning, thus overstepping its normally ascribed regulatory functions. By trespassing
into the realm of the civic sphere, identities are realized, thus creating the conditions for
collective action.
In all, the first model applied highlights the social processes indicative of the
Tea Party’s grassroots character. The second will uncover the importance of
organization in the TPM's ascendance from informal and isolated discussions to a
national figure. The third will illustrate the value of culture and identity underlying the
motivation of Tea Partiers.
This approach also replicates Allison's scheme in that "the sections that follow
simply sketch each conceptual model, articulate it as an analytic paradigm, and apply it
to produce an explanation."14 Space and time simply do not permit the full
development and support of a general argument from this case. However, by applying
these alternative models to the Tea Party movement we can begin to produce a more
cogent image of the movement and its underlying characteristics; we "set these ideas
down as the beginning, not the end, of an extended argument."15

Allison (1969) 691
Allison (1971) 8

The information to interpret these frameworks will be accumulated from a
variety of documentary and archival sources on the topic of the emergence and
subsequent activities of the Tea Party movement. These include academic journals,
survey data, investigative texts, journalistic news coverage, organizational websites, and
statements by movement actors and elites. While case studies are especially suited to
utilize an array of sources, this triangulation of data and empirics ultimately attempts to
ensure the validity and scholarship of this paper.16
The youth of the TPM has resulted in a scarcity of materials in any one specific
field of literature, i.e. no one form or area of publication could alone provide enough
material to fulfill the requirements of this study. This may best be represented in the
abovementioned vagaries of Tea Party “membership” on which polling often relies,
calling for the need of additional resources in supporting any analytical claims. By
amassing available information from diverse sources on the conditions and qualities of
actors within the TPM we hope to better understand how this disassembled body came
to be.
As mentioned prior, we evaluate materials within the alternative explanatory
frameworks based on Gamson’s conditions for social movement success: tangible
benefits of meeting goals established by the movement organizations, and the formal
acceptance of the movement organization by its main antagonist as a valid
representative of a legitimate set of interests. These can be traced to the TPM in their
non-partisan ambitions to advance conservative politics through the installation of
conservative politicians and policy, and in the movements desire to convert political
figures and the general public into supporters and activists. While again we are forced
to recognize the decentralized nature of the TPM and its consequences in accounting for
the varied successes and failures of local and national Tea Party drives, we can pinpoint
certain activities and accounts within their short history to track the successful
progression from actor to collective action.

Yin 8, 99

While the use of the media materials used in this study in particular have been
targeted as a source of bias in the interpretation and presentation of social movement
activities and research, the use of multiple sources of information can help combat
issues surrounding bias in findings.17 It should be noted that “bias also can enter into
the conduct of experiments (see Rosenthal, 1966) and the use of other research
strategies, such as designing questionnaires for surveys (Sudman & Bradburn, 1982)”.18
Without disregarding the sensitive nature of bias in social science research, it has been
our desire to address these concerns through the use of reputable media sources and a
strict adherence to theoretical guidelines.

Earl, et. al. 74
Yin 10

Explanatory frameworks of social movements
This section takes a closer look at the core characteristics of the three
explanatory theories. We first explain the general foundations of RMT, and then
specify the areas of divergence that create the unique perspectives of PPM and OEM in
social movement research. We then turn to NSMT’s understanding of social
movements and collective action as a consequence of the underlying cultural and
symbolic components of society. In doing so, we aim to clarify the empirical
assumptions of these frameworks in order to more accurately assess their explanatory

Resource Mobilization Theory

Resource Mobilization theory (RMT) evolved from traditional collective
behavior theory, which viewed collective action as non-institutional, irrational
responses by those displaced by rapid social change.19 Breaking away from this
tradition, RMT questioned the position and explanatory weight of relative deprivation
theory and collective behavior theory by suggesting that such grievances are present at
all levels of society and as a result should be considered a background factor in the
explanation of collective action.20 Scholars of RMT suggest that the ongoing presence
of aggrieved populations in society would allow grassroots movements to mobilize at
any point in time provided their effective organization and immediate or eventual access
to the power and resources of an established elite group.21 From this, RMT would
instead focus on certain “contextual processes” within environmental structures that
condition the potential of social movement activity, such as resource management,
organizational dynamics, and political change.22 Accordingly, RMT represents a shift
away from focusing on the sources of social cleavages and disequilibrium towards an
approach using the social movement itself as the unit of analysis.
The issues, actors, and structural constraints are considered as given within the
RMT approach, with analysis centered on how actors (individuals and organizations)

Jenkins 530
Jenkins 528, 530; Buechler (1993)
McCarthy & Zald (1987) 151
McAdam, et. al. (1996) 3; Canel 205-206

interact with their environment and the strategies they employ in pursuit of their
interests.23 Individual actors in this regard were fashioned as rational actors whose
involvement in social movement activities was based on a calculus of the costs and
benefits of participation. These costs and benefits are calculated on available resources
and changes in opportunities for collective action.24 Although subject to debate, these
resources have commonly included time, labor, money, facilities, and legitimacy.25
“Political opportunity” structures are either facilitated or suppressed by conditions in
the political system, and ultimately determine the actor’s decision to move from
condition to action.26

Competing approaches within the RMT paradigm

Two diverging models have emerged from the basic foundations of RMT: the
Political Process model (PPM)27 and the Organizational-Entrepreneurial model
(OEM)28. Although these models vary on their point of departure, both adhere to three
broad factors akin to social movement research.29 These three components are
summarized as:

1. Political opportunities: Social movements are formed by the political

opportunities and constraints unique to the broader national contexts to
which they are embedded.
2. Mobilizing structures: “Collective vehicles”, both formal and
informal, through which actors mobilize and engage in collective action.
3. Framing processes: Efforts of groups of people to craft
understandings that legitimate and motivate collective action.

Canel 206
Jenkins 528
McCarthy & Zald (1987) 151-152, 154-155
Canel, 207, 208
McCarthy & Zald (2002) 556-557; Canel 206
Canel 206; McCarthy & Zald (2002) 545
McAdam, et. al. (1996) 2-7; McAdam, et. al. (2001) 41

Briefly put, PPM looks at the opportunities that surface based on broader historical or
longitudinal changes in society that spur mobilization. In contrast, OEM studies the
regulatory role of mobilization structures (i.e. social movement organizations)
permitting the recognition, assembly, and manifestation of aggrieved groups into a
collective force. Generally speaking, both these models within the RMT framework try
to explain the organization and strategies of social movements, when they would form,
and if they would succeed; they describe the formation and behavior of social
movements. In all, the roots of RMT “proposed that the passage from condition to
action was contingent upon the availability of resources and changes in the
opportunities for collective action.”30 We use the following figures to illustrate the
general dimensions of RMT as compared to those of NSMT:

Figure 2. General dimensions of NSMT and RMT.

The processes of contentious politics

PPM emphasized a track of research concerned chiefly with the gradual opening
and closing of “opportunities and threats” realized by actors in determining the choice
to participate in collective action.31 Such opportunities or threats can present
themselves from changes in regime structure, changes in potential coalitions, and
changes in the government agenda.32 Therefore this approach suggests that the state

Tilly 99; Jenkins (1983)
McAdam, et. al. (2001) 43; McCarthy & Zald (2002) 557; Canel 206; Johnston & Noakes 20
McCarthy & Zald (2002) 556; Jenkins 543

and political activities play a pivotal role establishing the costs and benefits of an
actor’s participation in collective action. Such changes in political opportunities
therefore are likely to alter perceptions of the risks and/or rewards of individual
involvement in collective action, either producing a sense of hope driving action or an
element of despair resulting in continued passivity or compliance. These opportunities
and threats are produced from issues of “contentious politics”, or the collective political
struggle, where a claim is collective and, if realized, would affect their objects’
interests. The privileged “polity members” and their “challengers”33 establish and
continually improve upon their respective “repertoires of contention”, that is, the
culturally encoded ways in which people interact in contentious politics.34 The
attribution of threat and opportunity requires both their visibility to potential
challengers and members as well as their perception as an opportunity prior to
collective action.35
PPM also has a distinct view of mobilizing structures, which can allow
sufficient amounts of organization and numbers in order to make coordinated activities
possible after an opportunity or threat is presented. According to PPM, while such
structures may already exist or are created during the course of contention, social
movements must appropriate them as vehicles of struggle. The process of
appropriation often involves harnessing local networks and institutions, a common
example being the American civil rights movement.36 In its formative stages, civil
rights activists utilized these networks while transforming local institutions in order to
propagate and implement the goals of the emerging struggle, emphasizing PPM’s
importance on interpersonal networks as a base of mobilization. Although this process
is not without conflicts, organizations can often be arenas for the ongoing interpretation
of environmental conditions thereby serving as advocates and hospitable hosts to the
well-established interests and the relatively stable collective identities to which the
goals of these organizations are tied.

“Polity members” consist of politically engaged actors which enjoy routine access to
government agents and resources, while “challengers” are those that are lack such access.
McAdam, et. al. (2001) 12-16
Ibid 43
Ibid 47-48

Accordingly, as these identities, interests, and movement goals are placed within
an expanded timeline during contestation, framing processes are viewed not as mere
strategic efforts but rather as overarching interpretive processes within which
challengers have been constituted. As a result, framing processes and political
opportunities are uniquely intertwined.37 Framing in this sense is an interpretive
process that is closely linked to the interaction between political contexts, media, and
cultural resources; it is the articulation of these collective efforts in a contentious
episode.38 From such interpretive processes, an important consequence is the
attribution of a new threat or opportunity and a reconceptualization of the legitimacy
associated with sites of social interaction and/or identities. In this light, efforts to
mobilize political identities are primarily based on interactive appeals to existing
identities, and while identities are subject to ongoing developments in contentious
politics, their mobilization depends strongly on a grounding of ties created by previous
contention and/or routine social life.39
The PPM model, in sum, concentrates on state action and policy and the
possibilities of influencing state action that facilitates or impedes social movement
action.40 This approach also stresses meso-level phenomenon (e.g. work environments,
neighborhoods,) in accounting for the successful mobilization of those operating outside
formal political channels. While some activists are privy to organizational structures
during the mobilization process, such deficits can be compensated for by appropriating
available local social spaces and collective identities in servicing the interpretive
processes inherent to the attribution of opportunity and threat and the manifestation of
collective action.

The professionalization of social movements

The organizational and economic foundations of OEM and its emphasis on
mobilizing structures are highlighted in its conceptual structure. According to this
approach, social movements en masse are housed alongside other major enterprises (e.g.

Caniglia & Carmin 204
McAdam, et. al. (2001) 44
Ibid 58
McCarthy & Zald (2002) 556

the manufacturing or agricultural sectors). This social movement sector (SMS) contains
all the assorted, more specific movements found within the national polity (e.g.
environmental activists, women’s rights, or peace movements), each of which is
referred to as a social movement industry (SMI). An SMI in turn contains all social
movement organizations (SMOs) that have as their goal the attainment of the broadest
preferences of a social movement (SM). According to McCarthy and Zald, SMs are
defined as “mobilized or activated (effective) demands (preferences) for change in
society.”41 While SMOs may cut across SMIs and SMs depending on how narrow or
broadly they define their goals, all SMOs establish and pursue target goals that
conceptually link them to particular SMs (or countermovements) and larger SMIs.42
The figure below provides a rough sketch of this conceptual framework:

Figure 3. Conceptual model of OEM.

According to OEM, resources are vital to the proliferation of an SM and the

origins and maintenance of SMOs. The importance of these resources in engaging in
social conflict requires a minimal level of organization for collective purposes. These
resource flows serve as the lifeline to the SMO, and, assuming a limited amount of
available resources, places an SMO in direct competition with other SMOs external to

McCarthy & Zald (2002) 534
McCarthy & Zald (1987) 153, 154-155

its cause as well as non-political recreational or cultural activities accessible to those
with discretionary resources. As resource inflows increase, an SMO is likely to shift
from a classical form of SMO structuring (e.g. indigenous leadership, volunteer staff,
extensive membership, resources from direct beneficiaries, and actions based on mass
participation) to a professional SMO (e.g. routinized tasks, division of labor,
hierarchical decision-making processes, and definitive membership criteria).

The SMO’s “target goals” along with their solutions and strategies become its
communiqué for maintaining or expanding resource flows. Applying “supply and
demand” economic theory, these target goals become products which are “sold” to
differing groups and populations, from those neutral to the cause, to those
sympathizing, to those directly benefiting from the attainment of these goals. Demand
has traditionally been expanded through advertising and media, processes of
recruitment and resource appeals which were later developed upon by theories relating
to strategic framing, i.e. “how individuals develop metaphors and packages of related
cognitive elements to interpret the world they live in”.43

According to OEM, both mobilizing structures and framing processes ultimately

mediate political opportunities. For instance, “issue entrepreneurs” within an
organization can successfully seize upon major cleavages between elites and major
interests thereby redefining long-standing grievances in new terms.44 These
entrepreneurs “attempt to define the issues for specific and general audiences. If they
are successful, they enlarge and intensify the sentiment pool, that is, they increase the
number of people committed to a demand/preference for change and intensify the
commitment to the issue of those who already share that preference.”45 While Jenkins
(1983) has found that the mobilization potential of a group is largely determined by the
degree of preexisting group organization, these entrepreneurs are able to both initiate
and expand the reach of the social movement in order to ensure a steady supply of
resources into the SMO.

McCarthy & Zald (2002) 557
Jenkins 531
McCarthy & Zald (2002) 536

“New Social Movements” and social constructionism

Although also recognizing the rational nature of actors advocated by RMT, New
Social Movement theory (NSMT) represents an alternative perspective on the growth of
social movements. While RMT has explicitly studied the ability of social movements to
acquire and organize the requisite resources for mobilization, NSMT has shifted the
center of analysis onto the individual actor within the particular social movement; RMT
offers insight into “how” actors mobilize while NSMT stresses “why”. Not
surprisingly, in contrast to contests over the allocation of such goods and resources in
RMT’s political market, NSMT focuses instead on the cultural elements of social
movements and their struggles for control of the production of meaning and the
constitution of new collective identities.46 Consequently, the actor’s participation in a
social movement is defined in terms of their relation to the issue itself, with the social
movement being the manifestation of ideological and political processes.

According to NSMT, as the creation of meaning and interpretation of norms and

values occurs not at the state level but at the level of social integration, social conflicts
have shifted from the exclusivity of the political realm and into the civic and cultural
realm. NSMs occur based on the perceived intrusion of governance on autonomy and
identity formation, and “call into question the structures of representative democracies
that limit citizen input and participation in governance, instead advocating direct
democracy … and cooperative styles of social organization.”47

As opposed to RMT’s historical conditionalities, these actors become the center

of contemporary conflicts, raising new issues, carrying new values, operating in new
terrains, employing new modes of action, and taking on new organizational forms.
Arguably, these participants in new social movements are constantly questioning what
is being done.48 Although covering a broad range of topics, NSMT brings to public
discussion issues that had prior been considered private issues while promoting values

Canel 189-190
Pichardo 415

advocating equality and participation, individual autonomy, democracy, plurality and
difference, and the rejection of manipulation, regulation, and bureaucratization.49

As noted, discrepancies between RMT and NSMT are found in the

organizational forms of new social movements, based on “loosely articulated networks
of participatory democratic organizations permitting multiple membership and part-time
or short-term participation and demanding personal involvement both inside and outside
the organization.”50 Overall, this open, decentralized, non-hierarchical structure is an
attempt to avoid the deradicalization, cooptation, and oligarchization of movements
past.51 Regardless of certain ambiguities in accounting for either the success or failure
of a NSMs impact (as its mere existence can be considered an accomplishment), NSMT
is utmost concerned with cultural issues, symbolic production, normative contestation,
and social integration.52 This leads to our mention of social constructionism, which
brings a symbolic interactionist approach to the micro-level study of collective action
by emphasizing the role of framing activities and cultural processes in social activism.53
Advocating these lifestyle and identity issues through expressive action is a distinct
feature of NSMT within social movement research.

The Tea Party phenomenon

Initially, the various foci of these theoretical models all seem to resonate with
the emergence and development of the Tea Party movement; the channeling of rhetoric
and symbolism tied to the U.S. Constitution and the American Revolution echoes the
expressive yet protective forms attached to the identity claims of NSMT; the
“grassroots” aims and localized networks of the movement’s activists in response to
liberal political policy suggest the bottom-up approach affixed to PPM; and the
expedited pace of nationwide coordinated activities stresses the resources and
organizational capacity espoused by OEM. However, neither appears fully capable to

Canel 199; Pichardo 414
Canel 201; Pichardo 415-416
Pichardo 416
Canel 201, 217
Buechler (1995) 441, 460

explain the dynamics which allowed the Tea Party to amass its support and exercise its
burgeoning influence; NSMT fails to account for the methods and modes of strategic
activity taken to achieve their goals; PPM is criticized for neglecting the relevance of
organization in exchange for its emphasis on political opportunities; and OEM’s
reliance on SMOs is weak in explaining a subject’s transition from condition to action.
By introducing alternative frameworks for analysis, we may be privileged a better
understanding of the mechanisms aiding the collective strength of the Tea Party

Our analysis will begin with a brief summary of the Tea Party movement and
several points that have spurred an interest in placing this case under examination. The
basic components of each conceptual framework will then be discussed before delving
into the assessment and plausibility of their respective arguments in explaining the case
of the Tea Party movement. Their strengths and weaknesses will be noted, leading us
into a discussion on what we can take away from these divergent explanations and what
they may implicate for further areas of research.

The TPM represents a fragile coalition of concerned citizens and organizational
supports. Its origins purportedly stemmed from the passage of the Obama
administration’s economic stimulus package, an act representing a reckless government
usurping the Constitutional privileges its citizens were naturally bestowed. However, as
lateral ties and connections were slowly beginning to congeal between concerned
segments of the American population, organized interests and professional counterparts
entered onto the scene in support of the Tea Party movement, all the while claiming the
autonomy and strength of U.S. citizens and the independent political will and organic
foundations of this newly formed social movement. These relations have been the
subject of continued debate in understanding the emergence and mobilization of the Tea
Party movement, as public support has grown and the ability of the loose
conglomeration of conservatives has demonstrated the ability to impact the political
field. We will now turn to three prominent figures in social movement research in order
to locate possible explanations into how the Tea Party movement has arguably
flourished in the face of controversy and conflict.

Political Processes and the social network

As mentioned above, PPM has moved towards a model stressing dynamism,
strategic interaction, and response to the political environment. This approach argues
that social movements stem from an atmosphere of contentious politics. Such an

environment “is episodic rather than continuous, occurs in public, involves interaction
between makers of claims and others, is recognized by those others as bearing on their
interests, and brings in government as mediator, target, or claimant.”54
PPM especially highlights the element of interaction: “We treat social
interaction, social ties, communication, and conversation not merely as expressions of
structure, rationality, consciousness, or culture, but as active sites of creation and
change. We have come to think of interpersonal networks, interpersonal
communication, and various forms of continuous negotiation - including the negotiation
of identities - as figuring centrally in the dynamics of contention.”55 Granovetter (1973)
has also shown how combinations of both strong and weak ties within society are useful
in supplementing social movements by providing trust and emotional support as well as
offering a diverse array of ideas and interests. Therefore, given the leaderless nature of
the TPM, we would expect that the Tea Party’s evolution (i.e. its ability to formulate
and execute objectives and ability to established itself as a legitimate firm) be based on
the progression of interpersonal ties and networks in identifying and responding to a
potential threat or opportunity in state activity.
Given the cultural dimension in which methods of contention are displayed (i.e.
the cultural codes contained within “repertoires of contention”), it is not surprising that
a common demographic has been shown to comprise the core of the Tea Party
movement.56 Evidence has also shown that membership is closely aligned with areas
that enjoyed rapid growth prior to the onset of the recession in 2001 and suffered
disproportionately in the housing crash that followed.57 These common identifications
and relational ties are a primary mobilization mechanism for this scheme.58
Furthermore, this in-group dynamic has also been shown to affect the transfer and
accumulation of information. Whereas 45% of Tea Party respondents were likely to
trust information received from other supporters, alternatively only 35% trust
information received from “Television/newspapers”, a mere 5% entrust both the former

McAdam, et. al. (2001) 5
Ibid 22
Zernike 6-7, 158; Wright 7
Chinni 2010; Rasmussen & Schoen 161-162
McAdam, et. al. (2001) 26

and the latter, and 7% neither the Tea Party nor the media. This echoes the bonding
social capital that has been located, if not required, in the success of bottom-up
The political and social isolation of Tea Partiers may be connected to many
sources: the ongoing threat of fringe elements and liberal “infiltrators” into the
movement’s activities; the mainstream media’s relentless demonization of the Tea Party
movement; the pressure from social conservatives to address social policies; the
overarching desire of the Tea Party movement to remain apolitical while also
attempting to connect to and influence economic policy. Regardless, the TPM’s insular
qualities are quite real and have best been illustrated in a recent poll of supporters,
where 85% believed that the movement’s activities reflected the views of most
Americans, while only 25% of the general public believed the same.60 These
perceptions stand to be realized politically as well. While slightly over half of Tea
Party supporters have indicated dissatisfaction with the Republican Party,
dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party was a resounding 92%.61 Such sentiment also
took form in proposed healthcare reform legislation, which only heightened the
animosity and fervor amongst the participants of this budding conservative movement.62
However, the nationally coordinated, concerted activities of the TPM force us to
move beyond the isolation of bonding mechanisms and strong ties. According to PPM,
strong ties and weak ties are divided into two complimentary elements: diffusion and
brokerage.63 Weak ties are required in the growth of social movements in that the
“(c)ontention that spreads primarily through diffusion will almost always remain
narrower in its geographic and/or institutional scale than contention that spreads
through brokerage … (b)ecause it will not transcend the typically segmented lines of
interaction which characterize social life.”64 However, arguments have been made
suggesting that such social capital within the United States’ communities conducive to
weak ties have been on the decline, encouraging a general isolation of individuals from

Widmalm 2005; Oberschall (1973)
Zernike 126; Rasmussen & Schoen 112
Zernike 206
Rasmussen & Schoen 122-125
McAdam, et. al. (2001) 333-334
McAdam, et. al. (2001) 333-334

public affairs.65 Accordingly, we would assume greater devices were at play than those
isolated to the TPM’s symbolic origins in Florida or Seattle.
There is ample room for examining the place of brokerage and brokers in the
Tea Party movement. Numerous organizations and figures, both at the national and
local level, have been associated with the movement from the outset and have continued
to be recognized as venues for creating “new boundaries and connections among
political actors.”66 In fact, the most controversial figure in steering the mobilization
and activities of the TPM, FreedomWorks, states that much of its activity have been
clueing its members to other protests in the area, so protesters could cooperate and
conglomerate their events.67 However, the issue with the author’s rendition of brokers
is problematic for the Tea Party movement in that these actors or organizations serve
the dual purpose of bridging individuals and organizations and “speak(ing) on their
behalf to the object of their claims”.68 The proclaimed grassroots, decentralized,
leaderless foundations of the TPM assumes that such a position is non-existent, or at
best the linkages procured through brokerage remain lateral as common identity and
activism are disseminated. In fact, it has been argued that in place of centralized
organization certain Constitutional provisions (particularly that securing State’s rights)
have become “a natural resource for the ‘leaderless’ Tea Party movement” encouraging
the independent structure of the movement that has appealed to many local activists.69
Not surprisingly, the horizontal dimension of the movement has been aided
greatly by online activities in support of their mobilization and coordinated activities.
The introduction of online communications technologies has fundamentally transformed
the American media landscape and the ability of conservative movements to capitalize
on political opportunities for social change.70 The “Tea Party Patriots” are the
technological darling of the Tea Party movement, originating as a hub for local activists
and developing into a broad, nationwide coalition linking hundreds of websites and

Putnam (2007); Edsall (2010)
McAdam, et. al. (2001) 143
Good (2009, April 13)
McAdam, et. al. (2001) 142 (Italics added)
Rasmussen & Schoen 119; Zernike 67-69; Blee & Creasap 272
Rasmussen & Schoen 225; Harris (2010); Blee & Creasap 274

compiling an extensive database of email addresses.71 Such connections have allowed
interested groups and persons to tap into the sentiment and successes of demonstrators
from throughout the country. However, its organic expansion has been tainted by its
close cooperation with the larger, politically ambiguous national conservative
organization FreedomWorks, and it’s subsequent acquisition of the “Patriot” label and
Additionally, the mainstream social media networks that have been championed
by Tea Party advocates as having “allowed a disparate group to quickly connect and
plan events” have been shown ambiguous in their outcome; 88% of polled supporters
have neither “gotten or shared information about the Tea Party movement” from these
sites.73 This poll data has also indicated the majority of supporters source their
information not from Tea Party websites but from television outlets and alternative
online media, indicating a potential divide amongst TP affiliates and a limited ability of
these mediums to substantially unite the overarching TPM.74 However, even if we
consider the propensity of Tea Party supporters to prefer the anti-Obama rhetoric of Fox
News Channel, the questionable level of trust granted to these outlets suggests a more
substantial component to their participation in the movement itself.75
This agency-structure tension also interferes with the Tea Party’s most notable
triumph: their ability to amass and exercise the bottom-up support necessary to elect
Republican Senator Scott Brown into office. Public claims suggest that collective Tea
Party member support was detrimental in driving the mass efforts and subsequent
election of this conservative Senator within a traditionally “blue” state.76 However,
other reports have indicated that FreedomWorks talent had already weighed the options
of participating in an election against an apathetic and disengaged opponent prior to
soliciting the assistance from the ranks of the Tea Party, with the more humble
conclusion “that the movement was capable of maturing, or at least of being

Rasmussen & Schoen 149
Zernike 43
Armey & Kibbe 28-29; Zernike 219
Zernike 219
Zernike 221; Pew Research Center (2009, April 22)
Rasmussen & Schoen 180-182

practical.”77 The questionable ability of the TPM to establish legitimacy amongst
political agents has also been highlighted in their criticisms of Brown’s political
activities. While soliciting the TPM’s support during his election campaign, the Senator
would soon distance himself from the movement in the media as well as deviate from
the Tea Party’s policy prescriptions.78
What is most unclear about PPM’s discussion of external brokers and
entrepreneurs in relation to the TPM is if and how they are able to establish and
maintain coalition formation amongst actors in absence of formal organizational
structures especially given the Tea Partier’s suspicion of leaders and elites. It is also
unclear as to if this causal chain is wholly unidirectional. Do such entrepreneurs take
direction from challengers? Or is direction provided fully by the brokerage? How can
institutional roles influence the vertical and horizontal dimensions of brokerage? The
relevance of this is found in Zernike’s chronicling of the TPM. She had found that
many of its local supporters were weak in articulating a unified platform or cogent plan
of objectives and actions, while being quick to absorb those generally offered by larger
conservative organizations.79 If 90% of those most active in the Tea Party argue that
their decision for participation was “to stand up for (their) beliefs”, this lack of
clarification may confuse how and why the threat to belief structures initiating
collective action processes was perceived, transmitted, and demonstrated.80
Furthermore, given the episodic nature of PPM, it is unclear to which episode
this movement belongs and how it was actuated within the broad social changes
conditioning localized action. While initially affixed to the economic stimulus package,
Tea Partiers have since been connected to additional political activity; Obama’s
healthcare reform, the Bush administration’s spending and bailouts, remorse over the
Clinton-era budgetary surplus.81 Additionally, the Tea Party’s merits have been
conceptually linked to advances of the New Right birthed during the turmoil of the
1960s, or to the pioneer of conservative populism (and McCarthyism), Senator Joe

Zernike 86-92
Stein (2010); McMorris-Santoro (2010, December 13); “Scott Brown To Skip Tea Party”
(2010); Epstein (2011); Page (2011)
Zernike 42, 52-53
Rasmussen & Schoen 142
Rasmussen & Schoen 117-118; Love 38

McCarthy.82 In fact, some have traced the origins of the Tea Party to the 1960s
libertarian movement of Senator Barry Goldwater, whose activities were a direct
response to the advances of Democrats and liberal developments in civil rights
legislation that the author’s of PPM thoroughly examine, suggesting the continuation of
an unresolved “contentious episode”.83 Indeed, “the sentiments underlying this
movement are not new.”84
Overall, this resembles what has been referred to as “opportunity spirals”, where
environmental changes, interpretations of that change, and action and counteraction
together result in increases and declines in available opportunities for mobilization and
collective action.85 However, if we are to consider the proposition of a strict adherence
to the American Constitution pursued by many Tea Party supporters, and the recovery
of “freedom” and “liberty” sought by their organizations and affiliates, these “spirals”
guide us into a historical abyss of ideological dormancy and activity leading to the
American Revolution and beyond.86
Even if we instead narrow our focus to the public demonstrations of early 2009,
a segmented timeline remains blurred due to the political affiliations and activities of
those actors associated with the firms that the Tea Party has come to be closely
associated. For example, Dick Armey, chairman of FreedomWorks, is directly tied to
Republican politics, pioneering and politically connected economic conservative
organizations of the 1980s, and the “exclusionary discourse” of 1990s Religious Right
moralism and neoliberal politics.87 These overlapping connections highlight an ongoing
discord within the political process scheme. Additionally, if we take into consideration
the accumulated experience and knowledge of past conservative movements that such
an organization represents, it should be no surprise that the present Tea Party has
espoused the tactics of prior successes in conservative movements, where “leaders
inspired grassroots action.”88

Rasmussen & Schoen 36, 115; Zernike 52, 56; Mayer (2010)
Zernike 54-55; Flanders 9
Rasmussen & Schoen 278
McAdam, et. al. (2001) 243-244
Zernike 68-73
Marie Smith 149-153; Zernike 35; Armey & Kibbe 15-16; Peace 91
Blee & Creasap 272; Mayer (2010)

Organizations, entrepreneurs, and their “issues”
This model is similar to PPM in recognizing that “movements may largely be
born of environmental opportunities, but their fate is heavily shaped by their own
actions.”89 However, OEM developed in response to the growing presence of
professional SMOs, i.e. SMOs that had extended their traditional appeals for resources
beyond those individuals and organizations directly benefiting from social movement
activities.90 Proponents of this position have established such resources as a
prerequisite to social movement activity, in that they “must be controlled or mobilized
before action is possible.”91 These professional organizations with full-time, paid staff
are central to the mobilization, stability, and maturation of social movements, as prior
movements had chiefly been based on informal groups and associations centered on
contentious action.92 Indeed, “(c)entral to (OEM) is some notion of increasing or
decreasing demand for (social) movement activity and social change and some notion of
SMO stimulation of demand, organizational growth, decline, and adaptation as demand
increases or decreases.”93 Within the inherent competitiveness of the SMS, SMOs are
burdened with the responsibility of continually adapting to these changes, thus ensuring
the organizations activities, operations, and overall survival.
Organizational structuring and developments determining the success of the
TPM are difficult to assess. This is namely due to the Tea Party movement’s
decentralized character, which limits the recognition of hierarchical or bureaucratic
divisions. The result of this advocacy is noted as such:

“Organizationally, the Tea Party movement is a loose collection

of dozens, even hundreds of groups. Some … are well funded, but many
more are not; some are national in prominence, while many others
operate only locally. There are so many national, state, local, and county

McAdam, et. al. (1996) 15; Jenkins 543
McAdam, et. al. (1996) 4; McCarthy & Zald (1987) 156; McCarthy & Zald (2002) 534;
Caniglia & Carmin 202
McCarthy & Zald (1987) 155
Caniglia & Carmin 202; McCarthy & Zald (2002) 545
McCarthy & Zald (2002) 535

organizations using “Tea Party” in their name that it’s all but impossible
to keep track of them all, and they cannot keep track of one another.”94

However, the breadth and depth of the TPM and its ability to coordinate within and
across state borders suggests a level of centralization and consensus that refuses to be
acknowledged. In fact, RMT theorists argue “that outside leaders will tend to play a
central role in mobilizing groups with low organization, power and resources”.95 Given
the primitive forms of organization which flagship demonstrations exercised (i.e.
mailing lists) and the limited efficacy their localized initiatives achieved
independently,96 we should expect to see external agency in defining the goals of the
TPM, expanding the legitimacy of the movement’s claims, and driving mobilization
To a large extent, this has been commonplace within the Tea Party movement.
Among others, several well-renowned conservative organizations have been attributed
to the successful mobilization of the TPM: FreedomWorks has provided intellectual and
logistical support; its sister organization Americans for Prosperity has sponsored
numerous Tea Party activities, including the pivotal Tax Day protests of 2009 and
national tours against healthcare reform and carbon emissions caps; and the Our
Country Deserves Better PAC responsible for the nationwide Tea Party Express bus
tour event attempting “to unify, educate, and most importantly encourage Americans to
continue their opposition of deficit spending, government-run health care, and
irresponsible bailouts.”97 These connections have spurred great controversy and
criticisms from opposition while questioning the intentions and grassroots
characteristics of the movement as a whole.
At the heart of such claims is Koch Industries, a prominent American multi-
national corporation. The Koch brothers are longtime advocates and financiers of

Rasmussen & Schoen 165-166
Canel 208; McCarthy & Zald (1987) 152; Jenkins 531
Zernike 17-19
Wright 3; Rasmussen & Schoen 146-150; Zernike 33-45; Good (2009, April 13); Good
(2010, September 11); Flanders 6

libertarian causes, and have invested heavily in derailing the Obama administration.98
Their activist branch (Citizens for a Sound Economy) was born in the 1980s, with the
foundation formally splitting into the complimentary organizations Americans for
Prosperity and FreedomWorks in 2004. Working in tandem towards fiscally
conservative policy, these groups have advocated what has been referred to as
“grassroots” and “grasstops” strategies by encouraging citizen activism through
maintaining the organization of activists and supporters, communicating organization
activities and current events, and contacting high-profile public figures.99 While
FreedomWorks is not as vocal with its ambitions, it has a long history of prestigious,
professional political affiliations and has employed and promoted comparable two-
tiered approaches as those endorsed by its AFP brethren.100
The contributions of several conservative organizations have been noted in their
attachments to the growth of TPM’s “local” and “national” groups. As noted above,
previously established organizations have an advantage over the entrance of new
groups, as “(o)lder organizations have available higher degrees of professional
sophistication, existing ties to constituents, and experience in fund-raising
procedures.”101 Such benefits can instill a broad sense of institutional legitimacy and
authority while also allowing for expanded capabilities in amassing the requisite
resources for ongoing operations. In this manner, FreedomWorks has had a particularly
helpful role in establishing the TPM. While citizens were arguably discovering and
voicing their disagreement at kitchen tables throughout the US, Zernike writes how
FreedomWorks intervened to consolidate their scattered, frustrated emotions:

“FreedomWorks, in turn, gave people with inchoate anger something to

do about it - organize. While many groups on the right moved to seize the Tea
Party energy as it grew in the early months of 2009, it was FreedomWorks that

Mayer (2010); Zernike 35-37; Rasmussen & Schoen 150; Flanders 8
Mayer (2010)
Berkowitz (2004)
McCarthy & Zald (1987) 164

moved first and most aggressively. And very quickly, the FreedomWorks
ideology became the Tea Party ideology.”102

FreedomWorks staff experienced in organizing public demonstrations began

setting up platforms for communication and organized protest amongst American
conservatives.103 Of the 700-plus Tax Day Tea Party protests held nationwide in April
2009, FreedomWorks claims they provided resources to approximately 600 groups in
the successful execution of their flagship demonstrations.104 They have continued to
financially back the coordinated activities of the TPM, orchestrating the 2010 Taxpayer
March on Washington as “reflective of what we saw in the movement and what we
hoped to see in the movement.”105 In all, the sponsorship of the TPM by
FreedomWorks is best illustrated in the published efforts to organize local Tea Party
chapters “designed to achieve the goal and mission of FreedomWorks: lower taxes, less
government, and more freedom.”106 This identifies well with OEM’s federated SMO
structure in which participants are organized into small local units or chapters with the
effect of maintaining solidarity within the SMO and increasing appeals and flows of
resources107. However, while polls have indicated greater levels of income and
discretionary resources of Tea Party members allowing for their individual participation
under the OEM scheme, the root of such solidarity incentives and “selective benefits of
a nonmaterial sort” encouraging initial and continued involvement demand further
The evolution of national TP groups has also not escaped the direct influence of
external organization. FreedomWorks absorbed the Tea Party Patriots brand,
introducing national coordinators responsible for communicating with state and local
volunteers and charging it into the Tea Party’s largest group, ultimately transforming it
into a broad-based “national grassroots coalition with more than 3,000 locally

Zernike 35, 43; Armey & Kibbe 123
Zernike 40-42
Good (2009, April 13)
Vogel (2010, March 26)
Armey & Kibbe 183
McCarthy & Zald (1987) 160-162

organized chapters and more than 15 million supporters nationwide.”108
FreedomWorks’ ideology has also been incorporated into the Tea Party Patriot’s
recruitment scheme and their attempts to solicit those who “agree with our core
principles of fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free
markets.”109 The Our Country Deserves Better PAC has sponsored the nationwide Tea
Party Express bus tours that have mobilized support throughout the US, overcoming
criticisms regarding its Republican ties to amass significant media attention and
resource appeals.110 These media and advertising campaigns are detrimental to
connecting the “isolated constituents” which comprise the diffuse Tea Party
movement.111 Such directed attempts have also proven successful with previous
conservative social movements by coursing “deep into mainstream America, bringing
new social groups into politics.”112 Yet again, this refers to the problematique in
identifying how participation and contributions were solicited from the burgeoning and
politically inexperienced TPM at the individual level and how they have been
maintained throughout the process of collective action.
According to OEM, the bridge linking the TPM to its current and expanding
membership is found in the strategic framing activities of “issue entrepreneurs”. These
issue entrepreneurs “attempt to define the issues for specific and general audiences. If
they are successful, they enlarge and intensify the sentiment pool, that is, they increase
the number of people committed to a demand/preference for change and intensify the
commitment to the issue of those who already share that preference.”113 To accomplish
these aims, issue entrepreneurs employ collective action frames, which “are action-
oriented sets of beliefs and meanings that inspire and legitimate the activities and
campaigns of a social movement organization (SMO).”114 Although the concept and
characteristics of entrepreneurs in social movements is arguably underdeveloped, they

Tea Party Patriots; Zernike 190
McMorris-Santoro (2009, November 30)
Good (2010, September 11)
McCarthy & Zald (1987) 161
Caniglia & Carmin 273
McCarthy & Zald (2002) 536, 557
Benford & Snow (2000) 614; Klandermans 80, 93; Johnston & Noakes 8

frequently draw upon two general sources for framing devices: prior or concurrent
social movements and the cultural symbols of the dominant group.115
These images and symbols are in abundance when it comes to expanding the
Tea Party movement’s appeal to a broader audience. Of especial concern is the well-
publicized “Santelli Rant” in February of 2009, which gave a name and identity to the
discontent displayed earlier by Rakovich’s and Carender’s demonstrations:116

“This is America! How many people want to pay for your neighbor’s
mortgages that have an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills? Raise your
hand! President Obama, are you listening? You know Cuba used to have
mansions and a relatively decent economy. They moved from the individual to
collective. Now they’re driving ‘54 Chevy’s. It’s time for another Tea Party.
What we are doing in this country will make Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin
Franklin roll over in their graves. We’re thinking of having a Tea Party in July,
all you capitalists. I’m organizing.”

While numerous entrepreneurial agents may now be identified or proposed through

their affective competencies in the mobilization and collective activities of the TPM,
this landmark statement echoes the dual-tiered nature of framing in its reference to the
revolutionary efforts of America’s founders and the particular individualism marked of
U.S. culture.117 Similarly, the TPM’s ideological “adoption” of FreedomWorks’ “lower
taxes, less government, and more freedom” platform and “American Revolutionary
Model” of protest are considered a response to a government action that “cut to the core
of basic American values of individual choice and individual accountability.”118 In
return, organizational sponsorship of the TPM is reportedly based on the promise of a
“freedom-loving” American populace reintroduced “to their roots and a fundamental
tenet of our nation’s fabric.”119

Johnston & Noakes 7, 10; Minkoff & McCarthy 296
Zernike 22; Rasmussen & Schoen 120-121; Armey & Kibbe 19-20
Verba 3; Rasmussen & Schoen 225
Zernike 104; Armey & Kibbe 29
Armey & Kibbe 34

However, what would need better clarification is what exactly the issue is that
adheres to the concerns and demands of the TPM. Zernike’s 2010 NY Times poll
indicates an array of issues concerning TP supporters and list of responsible institutions
on which their grievances are based.120 By extolling a comprehensive platform of lower
taxes, less federal government, and Constitutional principles, they have potentially
aligned themselves with a wide range of constituents and sympathizers throughout the
United States under the “Tea Party” umbrella. Furthermore, their inclusion of
upholding the Constitution suggests their activities as in protection of the
abovementioned “basic American values” inherent of United States’ citizens. In fact, it
is argued that “(t)o the Tea Partiers, the Constitution made their movement more than a
protest, and more than a partisan argument. There was no arguing with the
Constitution.”121 In this light, the “issue” at hand for these entrepreneurs is the
Constitution itself. It would then be no surprise that the strategies provided and
endorsed by FreedomWorks to budding Tea Partiers draw immediate reference from the
sentiment and disruptive tactics employed by those inspiring the original American
Revolution (i.e. public demonstration, slogans, boycotts, and confrontational town hall
Such sentiment resonates with what Benford & Snow (2000) refer to as the
centrality of collective action frames, or how essential the beliefs, values, and ideas
associated with movement frames are to the lives of the targets of mobilization. Indeed,
Diani’s (1996) research has suggested that the current environment of traditional party
cleavages in the U.S. combined with a political system perceived as closed to
autonomous action favors mobilizations employing the anti-establishment frames akin
to the TPM. By channeling Constitutional values and principles within more pragmatic
concerns over irresponsible public spending and government overreach, issue
entrepreneurs have been able to complete the core framing tasks of diagnostic framing
(problem identification and attribution) and motivational framing (rationale for
engaging in ameliorative or collective action).

Zernike 202, 204-205
Ibid 67
Armey & Kibbe 30-31; Rasmussen & Schoen 124

However, the third core task of prognostic framing (articulation of a proposed
solution to the problem) remains far more elusive for the Tea Party. The movement and
its participants have produced a broad range of issues in which it could pursue, all
packaged within the general themes of fiscal conservatism and the preservation of
personal liberties. In an attempt to unite these scattered voices and concerns thereby
constructing a distinct yet inclusive set of demands, the resulting high level of
abstraction has lessened the movement’s ability to fruitfully engage in ameliorative
proceedings. While this has privileged Tea Partiers a particular independence in their
local operations and recruitment efforts to attain the participants, legitimacy, and
momentum of social change, it has also created disjuncture in the goals in which the
movement activists and supporters wish to accomplish under the rubric of strengthened
While defending Constitutional principles remains a central theme to the TPM
and its activities, the “originalist” perspective held by many of the Tea Partiers on the
document’s reading is riddled with subjectivity, inconsistency, and controversy.123 This
position has been reinforced by the political research firm Democracy Corps’ findings
that many conservatives believe that Tea Partiers, in regards to the movement’s
demands, “expressed a common refrain about returning the country to its founding
values as expressed in the Constitution - though they did not agree on what that
meant.”124 While conservative organizations have forged alliances with a range of
prominent conservative figures in order to mobilize and activate constituents under an
expanding Tea Party name (from the ultra-conservative politics of Sarah Palin and the
libertarian advocacy of Ron Paul to the social and political commentary of conservative
media pundit and religious zealot Glenn Beck), these ambiguities interestingly highlight
the potential for internal conflicts based on diverging values and interests within a
social movement, ultimately spurring the deterioration of its organizational unity and
political efficacy.125
In this sense, while OEM accounts for the ability of greater conservative
organizations to incorporate isolated individuals within its coordinated activities,

Liptak (2010); Lithwick (2011); Zernike 68
Zernike 153
McCarthy & Zald (1987) 163

thereby strengthening its support base, resource flows, and political efficacy, it fails to
address how the Tea Party movement has been able to produce an allegiance to the Tea
Party’s motif and the desire to pursue its individualistic aims within a collective setting.
This position offers a unique challenge to OEM’s “issue entrepreneur” in their task to
determine which issue is to be addressed while charting a unified course of corrective
measures towards a determined end.

New Conservative Social Movement Theory?

New Social Movement theorists attempt to explain the occurrence of collective
action through the lens of politics, culture, ideology, and identity.126 As concern has
moved away from economic issues, focus has instead centered on the collective control
of the process of symbolic production and the redefinition of social roles (e.g. age,
gender, ethnicity, neighborhood, the environment and peace).127 Given the emphasis on
personal, non-class related issues, much of the conflict and struggle of NSMs has been
removed from the political sphere and placed in the arena of civic sphere.128 In fact,
“NSMs prefer to remain outside of normal political channels, employing disruptive
tactics and mobilizing public opinion to gain political leverage.”129 The combination of
this conscious avoidance or rejection of institutionalized politics, careful distancing
from established political parties, and ideological bonds arguably distinguishes NSMs
from its analytical predecessors.130 In reference to the “patriotism, free enterprise
capitalism, and/or a traditional moral order” inherent to conservative social movements,
we should be able to discern a common conservative ideology emerge from the Tea
Party’s ongoing activities.131
As mentioned above, the TPM comprises all three of these elements, however,
the issue of free enterprise has been channeled through the rubric of “patriotism” and
Constitutionalism, which are themselves subject to varied moral interpretations. Posner
and Ingersoll have elevated this discussion in reporting how many within the TPM

Buechler (1995); Canel 190-191; McCarthy & Zald (2002) 558; Pichardo 414
Canel 190
Ibid 199
Pichardo 415
Buechler (1995) 448
Blee & Creasap 270

share the view that civil government should be reformed according to the dictates of
biblical law, indicating that Tea Party patriotism is sourced from endorsing and
institutionalizing Christian ethic.132 In this sense, it is not surprising that a religious
Christian doctrine has surfaced in the argumentation and philosophy of Tea Partiers and
Tea Party organs. For instance, opposition of federal climate change policy from Tea
Partiers has often centered on the biblical script that our Creator “made this earth for us
to utilize”, while prominent national Tea Party affiliates (including Tea Party Patriots)
have officially stated their pursuit of protecting Christian principles.133
Moreover, some researchers argue that it is this adherence to Christian traditions
of “moral purity” that likely accounts for the prominence of female activism in the Tea
Party movement:

“For many contemporary evangelical Christian women, the motivations

are similar. They want to enter the public sphere or even run for office to
eliminate abortion, protect marriage, contain sexual relations, oppose gay
marriage, and clean up the mess made by the sexual revolution. All this is part
of a long and recognizable female reform tradition in American history.”134

In addition to their strong presence in the media, some polls have also suggested that
this segment of women now represent over half of the Tea Party supporters
nationwide.135 While these factors overall combine to display the religious undertones
on which this movement is based, it would also stress the strong ideological
commitments characteristic of NSMs and NSM participants.136
Recent surveys from Pew Research Center have reiterated how Tea Party
supporters’ shared ideological commitments have translated into common beliefs and a
collective ability to affect social change and political policy. Foremost, is a national
survey highlighting their overwhelming belief that “the federal government is a major
Posner & Ingersoll 119
Broder 1; Rasmussen & Schoen 148-149, 152; Armey & Kibbe 66-67; Tea Party Patriots
Rosen 216-217; Bruce (2010); Clement & Green (2011)
Quinnipiac University Polling Institute (2010); Pew Research Center (2010, April 18); Rosin
2010; McMorris-Santoro (2010, March 24); Vogel (2010, March 26)
Pichardo 417

threat to their personal rights and freedoms.”137 According to NSMT, this perceived
government interference in the civic sphere (or “lifeworld”) indicates the struggles over
collective control of symbolic productions and definitions of social roles that can
articulate common identity and invite coordinated action.138
Referring back to the conservative values on which they are premised, Tea Party
supporters have also stated the importance of religion in their stance on more
contentious social issues.139 These beliefs have very real significance for the political
field, where Tea Party-backed candidates have been found to invoke “Christian
American history” and the “religion of the founders.”140 Courser (2010) has showcased
the potential of ideology on political outputs in his study of the 2010 mid-term
congressional elections. The results from these elections have shown that these Tea
Party-backed candidates found very strong success in Republican (i.e. conservative)-
leaning districts, while suffering overwhelming defeat in Democratic districts.141
Furthermore, after the swell of conservatives into congress, the amount of Tea Party
supporters “angry with the federal government” lessened, as their “trust in government”
increased142. From this, we can envision a more substantial yet definitive sense of unity
amidst the “anger”, “fear”, and “distrust” normally associated with this loose
conglomeration of concerned citizens expressing their frustration towards an intrusive
and unresponsive government.
However, if the TPM was and is an ideological response to these oppositional
government activities, there seems to be varying shades of conservative ideology
inherent of the Tea Party movement. For instance, while there seems to be a strong
correlation between agreement with Christian conservatism and the Tea Party
movement, the inverse relationship is weaker.143 This supposes the presence and
support of secular, fiscally responsible citizens bent on altering the political landscape
strictly through economic reforms. However, this platform is also contested within the

Pew Research Center (2010, April 18)
Buechler (1995) 445; Pichardo 420; Canel 192-194
Clement & Green 2011
Ingersoll 141
Courser 2
Pew Research Center (2010, April 18); Pew Research Center (2011, March 3)
Clement & Green 2011

TPM limiting its function as a viable alternative. Zernike (2010) states the dilemma and
inconsistencies of a more pragmatic TPM ideology:

“(I)t mostly reflected frustration. The country was awash in massive

problems, and it was easy to believe that the government was in the way of a
solution. The Tea Partiers who argued for fiscal responsibility didn’t focus on
the details - like the fact that any meaningful cuts in the deficit would require
deep cuts in programs that most Americans, and most Tea Partiers,

In all, these arguments underline a general struggle inherent of the TPM in determining
the size and role of the federal government that is accepted as Constitutionally
permissible. While many Tea Partiers remain confused about the scale and scope of
government, a minority of “angrier” Tea Party activists have supported “cutting Social
Security, Medicare, education, and defense spending”, highlighting a tension that has
plagued the movement and its participants.145
This discussion brings us to two central characteristics of NSMT that are also
related to the TPM: decentralized organization and a loose definition of who belongs to
the movement.146 The former component, although contested, is not without its
supporters inside and outside the movement. Rasmussen & Schoen (2010) illustrate
this position:

“Our view is that the movement’s decentralized nature is more a

strength than weakness. Its leaders may come and go, but the movement is
entrenched for the long haul - in whatever form it may eventually take. …
While some organizational streamlining may be inevitable in the future, the
Tea Party movement’s power lies in the way it mirrors the diversity,
nonconformity, and individuality of the American people.”147

Zernike 135
Ibid 7, 151
Canel 201; Pichardo 416; Buechler (1993)
Rasmussen & Schoen 168

However, within their praise of the “American people”, they fail to address the
uncertainty, controversy, and divisiveness surrounding any particular rendition of the
Constitution and its provisions. In their research of conservative and right-wing
(extremist) groups, Blee & Creasap have noted that the motivations of patriotism and
religious beliefs often blur distinctions between these two divergent forms of social
movements.148 In reference to “originalist” interpretations of the Constitution, the TPM
has by design incorporated “far-right agitators who believe the federal government is
largely unconstitutional” and has “overreached the limits of its divinely ordained
These extremist elements have had especial resonance to the TPM and the
American public since the January 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson,
Arizona, where reports have loosely linked particular conservative ideologies endorsed
by the movement to the shooter.150 This has to some extent exacerbated unfavorable
perceptions of the TPM amongst the general public, while overall discouraging Tea
Party-backed candidates from attending to an official Tea Party platform as they entered
office.151 In the end, while efforts to balance competing ideological distinctions have
taken form in the TPM’s wiki-style “Contract from America”, the inability of the
movement to fully contain and pacify these ideological contests has undermined its
capacity to gain the “political leverage” necessary to enact such legislation.152

Blee & Creasap 275; Flanders 11
Posner & Ingersoll 119-122; Zernike 144; Brant-Zawadzki (2010); Rasmussen & Schoen
194-195, 297
Weisberg (2011)
Jonsson (2011); Silver (2011)
Contract from America; Wright 4, 10

Implications & conclusions
The above analysis has offered a brief sketch of these three dominant figures in
social movement research and weighed their respective explanatory value in accounting
for the emergence and growth of the modern-day Tea Party movement. Although these
findings would be greatly complimented by a more in-depth analysis of Tea Party
supporters as well as of their opponents, this section will spell out some of the
implications stemming from these arguments and discuss the relations among the
models. Although these results ultimately center on the schematic laid out by OEM,
these models have been shown to produce quite different explanations and should
encourage greater care among future analysts in their examinations of the Tea Party
movement. Fortunately, this study hints at some potential avenues of research that may
aid in further clarifying the components of the Tea Party’s rise to national prominence.

OEM Centrality
This project shows that the contributions of OEM and its professional
associations trump theoretical perspectives more strongly linked to “grassroots”
developments and ideological ties in explaining the success of the Tea Party movement.
OEM has emphasized the organizational competencies required to amass and distribute
the resources demanded of the Tea Party’s diffuse character and relative lack of
expertise in the field of political activism. Consider the following table, which
illustrates the main descriptors within each respective theoretical approach as they apply
to the Tea Party movement:

Table 1. Competing theoretical properties of TPM.


Yes Decentralized structure Yes Professional services Yes

Interpersonal networks Yes Common ideology No Division of labor Yes

Brokers No Non-hierarchical No Centralized resources Yes

While domestic liberal policy is presented as a viable political opportunity, the
gradual, organic development of network formations, resource appeals, and the
organization of this budding social movement stressed under PPM were interrupted by
larger organizations in a concerted attempt to channel these national anxieties and
disorganized energies into an expanded conservative outlook throughout the U.S.
populace. In this non-hostile takeover, these conservative organizations have captured a
growing and appreciably visible public anxiety through patriotic rhetoric and a call to
protect the fundamental values in which all citizens are rightfully bestowed, while
stifling the natural development of interpersonal ties and identifiable representation
within the movement. However, despite their injection of resources (namely finance
and intelligence) into the veins of the TPM, these organizations have had little success
in capitalizing on the supposed widespread public support enjoyed by the movement as
a whole to determinately enforce political policy.
This apparent lack of return could be indicative off NSMT’s decentralized
structuring amidst a population united by ideological convictions, masking the growing
support required to expand the movement’s claims and encourage social and political
change. However, the diversity of beliefs that have surfaced from within the movement
and the controversy and divisiveness these attitudes and interests have ignited would
disallow a credible account of events through this lens. In their celebration of American
conservatism and the traditional values it extols, the nondescript characteristics of the
Tea Party’s engagements have seemingly initiated a more substantive antagonism than
the globalization and liberal domestic policies from which their grievances have
arguably stemmed, deterring its abilities to accomplish the wider social change it
desires. In this context, Tea Party groups will struggle to maintain credible influence
beyond their immediate environments, limiting their capacity to pressure greater
institutions to engage in structural change.
Courser (2010) has also hinted at a dissonance between local Tea Party chapters
and its national groups in his research of the 2010 U.S. mid-term elections.153 In this

We may find useful Gramsci’s (2006) critique of the State and civil society in constructing
an organizational sketch of the Tea Party movement. The author argues that hegemony is likely
to dictate relations between “political society” and “civil society”, resulting in a detachment of
the top levels of society from mid and grassroots actors. See also Tocci 32.

study he found that while national affiliates were “undermining traditional Republican
candidates in a conventional, professional campaign to nominate conservative
candidates, these small groups were largely inert and confused when it came to how to
engage in the political process.”154 And although the efforts of national Tea Party
groups have had greater impact on the Tea Party movement’s drive to expand support
and contributions over those of local chapters, its ability to transcend into the realm of
political influence is at best uncertain. For instance, despite its heavy-handed approach
in spurring what came to be known as the modern American Tea Party movement,
financial contributions to the FreedomWorks’ PAC saw only a meager increase during
2009, while public favorability ratings of the TPM have overall remained flat.155 In this
light, the successful establishment of the “Tea Party Caucus” within the U.S. Congress,
along with its unspecified support, undetermined policy guidelines, and relatively short
track record, can presently only be considered a symbolic victory for the TPM.156
Altogether, this illustrates the fact that, while varying opinion in the appropriateness of
strategies and purposes of the Tea Party movement may create or expose divides
between counterparts, they ultimately have in common a shared dependence on the
resources of their conservative sponsorship.157

OEM and Collective Identities

OEM has historically been criticized for failing to address the functions of
culture and collective identity in its scheme, a consequence of its rational actor model
based on material or fiscal benefits and rewards from participation. In this manner, it is
said that OEM underestimates the immaterial (or nontangible) elements encouraging the
transition from condition to action in which NSMT and, to a far lesser extent, PPM
attempt to exercise. While authors of OEM do give lip-service to social networks and
“solidarity incentives” in explaining initial and ongoing support for a SM, of more
immediate significance for this particular discussion on the TPM are their arguments on

Courser 8
Silver (2011); Weigel (2010, August 9)
Courser 2; Allen & Sherman (2010); “Tea Party Cautious” (2010)
Vogel (2010, August 9); Weigel (2010, September 9)

“sentiment pools”, ideology, and entrepreneurs.158 “Sentiment pools” are “reservoirs of
support” leading to ideologically structured action, which is “behavior shaped by
ideological charged beliefs, factual and evaluative, about both the ends of action and the
means of action. Ideology, in turn, is generated out of a complex process of cultural
and historical developments.”159 With all due respect to the overwhelming complexity
of cultural and historical processes in formulating such preferences, we would be remiss
in bypassing the potential contributions of ideology in explaining the rise of this
conservative social movement for the scholarly pragmatism inherent to OEM’s rational
actor model.
Regarding entrepreneurs and “sentiment pools”, while entrepreneurs are
commonly characterized as appendages of greater organizations, recent research has
begun to recognize their autonomy and value in facilitating the development of SMs
and SMO activities.160 Aldrich has gone on to reiterate the unique and undetermined
position of entrepreneurialship in the evolution of social movements:

“Outcomes of the founding process are highly uncertain. In many

cases, nascent entrepreneurs’ initial ideas are not realized, because their
intentions are misguided or they can not mobilize needed resources. Many also
cannot achieve the level of control necessary to gain mastery over
organizational boundaries. Thus, many organizing attempts fail. Foundings
that survive typically adopt the existing routines and competencies of the
population they join, but some may contribute new ones.”161

Entrepreneurs in this sense play a pivotal role in navigating between institutional

structures and the mass public, relying utmost on their deeper understanding of the
capacities and shortcomings of the population and environment in which they operate.
This is exampled in their modes of resource appeals, in which they employ both the

McCarthy & Zald (2002) 543, 549
Ibid (2002) 549
Minkoff & McCarthy (2010)
Aldrich 79

psychological and symbolic benefits of “issue framing” and the contextually-bound
references of “stories and visions”.162
From here, we question the applicable value of OEM’s original concept of
“issue entrepreneur” as it generally relates to the TPM. The movement has offered a
generous program of fiscal conservatism and traditional moral values for its constituents
in place of the more stringent claims and measurements in goal attainment normally
associated and pursued within “issue entrepreneur” activities.163 This imbalance
towards the movement’s qualitative functions has been reiterated by Pease (2010) in his
discursive analysis of the Tea Party’s “fantasmatic construction” of the post-9/11 U.S.
Nation. According to the author, “Tea Party populism reshaped the traditional themes
of family and nation to respond to actual political anxieties, but within the frameworks
of already constituted social ideologies.”164 This heightened level of abstraction does
not fully lead us away from OEM, provided an inclusive account of these “social
ideologies” within the OEM scheme and, more importantly, how the Tea Party has been
able to craft “traditional themes of family and nation” to their advantage.
However, the alteration and development of these underlying attitudes, values,
and identities effecting collective action and social change is largely unaccounted for in
OEM. Underwriter’s of this model formally recognize this inadequacy: “Subsequent
research has stressed more strongly than we did that the social organization of sentiment
pools is as important as their size and intensity in understanding the likelihood of their
implicit aggregate social change demand resulting in collective action. … Such work,
however, has not typically developed accounts of the shifting nature of the sentiments
that cohere within social infrastructures.”165

Ideologues and “ideological entrepreneurialship”

Much of this discussion has focused on the significance of “issue entrepreneurs”
in accounting for the success of the Tea Party movement while also recognizing the
ambiguity surrounding their mixed conservative agenda. By definition, this lack of

Ibid 99-101
McCarthy & Zald (2002) 557
Pease 91
McCarthy & Zald (2002) 549

clarification interferes with their assigned responsibility “to define the issues, to define
what is wrong with the system, and what kinds of policies would rectify the
grievances.”166 In spite of this disadvantage, figures within the movement have
continued to expand and invigorate a committed base of conservative Tea Party activists
and supporters. While our research cannot fully account for the outstanding divide
between the “social organization” of sentiments within RMT and the “ideological
bonds” of NSMT, we may be able to narrow this analytical gap by developing upon the
strategic efforts and capabilities assigned to the “issue entrepreneur”.
Given the weight placed on entrepreneurial activity in this study of the TPM and
the overarching conservative ideologies representative of its movement, we propose
North’s (2005) “ideological entrepreneur” as a complement to OEM’s “issue
entrepreneur” in explaining how conservative organizations have been able to “seed”
the local activism on which the movement is reportedly based. Storr’s (2008-2009)
assessment of North’s accumulated work on the “ideology entrepreneur” shows a
symbiotic relationship between ideology and institutions, and argues the main purpose
of ideological entrepreneurs is to convince others that the ideological underpinnings of
the existing institutional structure are unjust.167 While “ideological entrepreneurialship”
is arguably under conceptual development and thus weak in empirical application, it
serves as a preliminary yet substantial offering in uncovering the inner dimensions and
subsequent manifestations viewed under the Tea Party movement outlined above.168
This concept happens to mesh well with the developing descriptions and
characteristics of social movement entrepreneurs provided in previous sections of this
paper. Referring back to Aldrich’s work on the psychological and contextual bonds of
successful entrepreneurs, the author has stressed that these actors will use “high levels
of abstraction, thus fostering a degree of ambiguity around their innovative ideas.”169
For example, in the claim that “(t)he principles of individual freedom, fiscal
responsibility, and constitutionally limited government are what define the Tea Party
ethos”, we can witness a staggered, overarching triumvirate of ambiguous politics and

Ibid 557
Storr 100, 103
Ibid 100-101, 1
Aldrich 99

intent based on garnering support for independent conservative interpretations of
Constitutional provisions. In recognizing such conservative “(i)deologies (as) really
shared theories of the world”, the promotion of conservatism en masse would then help
facilitate the shared framing of messages which allow for the absorption or cooptation
of a social movement through institutional means, circumventing the decentralized and
seemingly protected autonomous status of Tea Party affiliates.170
Moreover, the concept of “ideological entrepreneur” highlights the social
movement entrepreneur as the least common denominator between the three
explanatory frameworks applied within this paper. Proposed theoretical models of the
“ideology entrepreneur” go so far as to forge an inclusive account of available
opportunity structures, networks, professionalized institutions, and “common cultural
background” fusing PPM, OEM, and NSMT. Under these conditions, an “ideological
entrepreneur would be alert to opportunities to advance an existing ideology that people
in a particular place want but do not yet know about (i.e., to engage in ideological
arbitrage). He would be alert to opportunities to sell a new ideology that better explains
the world than existing ideologies.”171 In light of preliminary research suggesting
increased levels of conservatism among the most active members of the Tea Party
demographic, and with consideration to the political absenteeism characteristic of Tea
Party supporters, we may argue that “ideological entrepreneurs” have played a central
role in capturing this sentiment and attempting to reshape and advance its properties
through patriotic discourse without full consideration or knowledge of such efforts.172
Within this context, we would view these entrepreneurs as competing for ideological
control of the “Tea Party” brand within a decentralized, exponentially compressed
hierarchical infrastructure, ultimately smothering the collective voice of those it would
wish to empower.
With due regard to the complexity and particularities underlying the formation
and acceptance of conservative ideology within a broad national infrastructure, the
introduction of the “ideology entrepreneur” is an attempt to address certain weaknesses
of OEM mentioned in this paper, thus deepening its explanatory value in the case of the

Gamson & Myers 284; Storr 102
Storr 107-108
Abramowitz (2010)

TPM. These actors have invited and “politicized” a loosely affiliated network of
individuals under a platform of traditional conservative values, emphasizing their
economic aims in order to avoid potentially contentious social issues and subsequent
intramovement dissent. Irrespective of speculated partisanship of the TPM, these
SMOs have channeled resources into the public sphere through “grasstops” initiatives in
their attempt to guide excited conservatives into local activism. In relation to the
responsibilities of the “issue entrepreneur”, these ideologues have identified various
affronts to conservative values, packaging prescriptions through the idioms of civic and
religious duty. While many Tea Partiers may symbolically respect the individualism
and independence proffered by these conservative organizations, as one moves up this
ladder of “Tea Party” abstraction, more substantive divisions become apparent.
In all, acceptable levels and forms of religious adherence, patriotism, and
conservative values have formally gone unaddressed within the movement thereby
limiting its transformative capabilities while also producing friction and animosity
within its ranks. Blee & Creasap have shown how past conservative movements have
actually capitalized on ideological division in goal-accomplishment, where their more
visible position in the social infrastructure had allowed them to identify “enemies”,
propagate “culture”, and efficiently and effectively organize “gender” norms in the
pursuit of social and institutional change.173 While the strong levels of female
participation and activism in the TPM may both replicate and champion this natural
outgrowth of traditional Christian conservatism, statements suggesting the location of
women in roles of influence as a strategic function in order to deter opposition, mitigate
internal conflict, and facilitate better communications threaten to relegate their position
to organizational “tokenism” and further debase the movement’s purported autonomous

Conclusion: We the people?

Our findings show that the Organizational-Entrepreneurial model within the
RMT scheme best explains the emergence of the modern-day “Tea Party” and its

Blee & Creasap 173-175
Vogel (2010, March 26); Bhatnagar 347-348; Traister 290

subsequent growth and influence. Natural developments proposed by the alternative
frameworks, while important, do not adequately address the strong reliance on resource
flows from professional SMOs into the national and local Tea Party groups that have
both guided and permitted their ongoing activities. From this, while the TPM has
exercised its collective potential for altering the course of conservative politics, its
dependence on external sponsorship in facilitating the movement’s broader agendas
suggests that the movement is still in a fledgling state with an uncertain future regarding
its composition and direction. Furthermore, the volatility of its professed conservative
ideologies threatens to limit its adaptive organizational capabilities in response to
external conditions at the risk of exposing more contentious and divisive issues.
Although we recognize the need for a more in-depth analysis of the movement and its
components to confirm or disprove these arguments, this discussion here has led us to
believe that SMOs and their leadership have been able to overcome concerns of
political partisanship and elitism in order to fan the conservatives flames amongst Tea
Party supporters.
Regardless, the nature of American politics has been dramatically revolutionized
by the Tea Party's ability to politicize people who were previously apolitical.175 While
recognizing that social movements are “rarely unified affairs” and often involve the
integration by diverse SMOs pursuing different goals and employing different tactics,
we turn our attention to the presence of the social movement entrepreneur (more
specifically, the “ideological entrepreneur”) in helping to account for this conversion,
and to aid in further explanations of how the Tea Party movement has been able to
achieve and maintain its momentum in the face of deeper ideological distinctions
amongst its supporters.176 As larger SMOs continue to emphasize their facilitative role
in the Tea Party movement as “seeding” grassroots conservative activism, one can’t
help but wonder who is tending the garden.

Harris 3
Canel 212

Abramowitz, A.I. (2010). Grand Old Tea Party: Partisan Polarization and the Rise of
the Tea Party Movement, in Conference on the Tea Party Movement, October
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