Government & Politics

How Racial Threat Has Galvanized the Tea Party

New research explores the link between racial animosity and the Tea Party movement.

July 15, 2016

| by Jonathan Xavier


A vendor selling Tea Party flags.

Researchers found that feelings of racial threat increased levels of Tea Party support. | Reuters/Brian Snyder

Why was the Tea Party movement able to rise so quickly to become a force in American politics? Pundits and political junkies have suggested anything from economics to racism, but it’s been a hard question for social scientists to answer definitively.

Yet that’s what a trio of scholars set out to do in a groundbreaking new study, which tries to pinpoint whether Tea Party support is motivated by racial ill will. Here’s a spoiler: Their results are probably not going to win them many friends in the Tea Party.

The paper, called Threats to Racial Status Promote Tea Party Support Among White Americans, is based on four years of studies by Robb Willer of Stanford Graduate School of Business, Matthew Feinberg of the University of Toronto, and Rachel Wetts of the University of California, Berkeley.

It’s important that political leaders, on the left and on the right, not stoke racial animus and anxiety for political advantage.
Robb Willer

Their paper is one of the first to examine the Tea Party’s meteoric rise through the lens of group position theory, a framework for understanding animosity between social groups. This theory argues racism is motivated by a symbolic understanding of where each race sits in relation to others in society. Any upset to that order, real or imagined, tends to increase feelings of racial threat, or a sense that one’s own group is losing ground.

If the Tea Party were motivated by racial ill will, group position theorists would reason, then situations that increase feelings of racial threat would likely also increase levels of Tea Party support.

A manipulated image of Barack Obama, showing his skin lightened and darkened.

Study 1 | Image Manipulation

Purpose: Test whether racial threat at the election of the first non-white president might have contributed to Tea Party support by making the president’s race more salient through image manipulation.

Methodology: 365 participants were given a short celebrity identification test where they were shown pictures of Jay Leno, William Shatner, and Barack Obama, then took a survey that evaluated their political opinions, including Tea Party support. Depending on whether they were the control group or not, the picture of Obama was either artificially lightened or artificially darkened.

Results: White participants in the darkened Obama group were significantly more likely to support the Tea Party, with 22 percent supporting the right-wing political movement compared with 12 percent for the lightened Obama group.

And indeed, that’s exactly what Willer, Feinberg, and Wetts found. In five separate studies, a group that was primed with racial threat-inducing stimuli showed significantly more support for the Tea Party than a similar group that didn’t, with the gap between the threatened and non-threatened groups as large as 10 percentage points in some cases.

We spoke to sociology professor Robb Willer about the study and what it means for our understanding of race’s effect on American politics.

Your new paper explores the link between racial animosity and the rise of the Tea Party using something called group position theory as a framework. Could you explain?

Group position theory argues that in cultures where a racial status hierarchy exists, higher ranking group members become accustomed to their standing. Whether they’re conscious of this or not, they become accustomed to a sense that they’re on top in this hierarchy. Tension comes from a sense that the value of one’s group, which you maybe weren’t even completely conscious you cared about, is now unstable and precarious and could potentially go away. A basis of value for one’s group is also a basis of value for the self, so threats to racial status are also personally threatening to members of the dominant group.

So group position theory argues that you see the greatest levels of racial animosity from majority group members during times when the hierarchy appears unstable. And they would argue if you look at the history of racial violence in America, that that’s exactly the pattern you’d see.

What made you think racial threat might be a good lens to understand the emergence of the Tea Party?

Any time you have a volcanic emergence of a political movement this powerful and influential, you expect to find some large systemic or demographic changes that could be driving it. If you look at when the Tea Party was born, that’s exactly what we see.

If you look back at late 2008, early 2009, you see the election of the first non-white president in the 230-year history of the American presidency, and you see a changing demographic makeup of the United States where for the first time minority groups were having their political influence really felt at the ballot box, which itself led to a whole wave of coverage about the decreasing proportion of whites in America and the waning political power of whites in America.

And you also have the biggest economic crisis in essentially every American’s lifetime. Past research shows that economic downturns can magnify racial threat effects, because they make whites feel like they have a diminishing share of a pie that is itself getting smaller.

Group position theory states that racial threat is more about symbolic status than actual tangible impacts on the affected group. Someone who sees that their race is starting to make up a smaller portion of the population might feel racially threatened, even though in reality this has no measurable impact on their day-to-day lives. How did that play into the way you designed your studies?

Tea Party demonstrators hold handmade signs in front of the capital building in Sacramento.

Study 2 | Perceived Threat to Status

Purpose: Test whether a greater perception of a threat to whites’ status as the majority ethnic group in the U.S. would contribute to Tea Party support.

Methodology: 290 participants answered reading comprehension questions about demographic reports adapted from Census data and then took a survey about their political beliefs. This survey had them rate the strength of their support for the Tea Party and various political policies on a scale from 1 to 5. They also completed a similar survey that measured their racial resentment toward African Americans. One group received data that showed the white majority steadily declining, while another group viewed reports that stressed that whites were still the largest ethnic group in the U.S. by far.

Results: White participants in the “Majority Threat” group were more likely to support the Tea Party compared with the “Majority Stable” group. What’s more, they also reported higher levels of racial resentment.

That’s important because there are other theories about how racial threat might work. In particular there’s this idea that it could just be about economic self-interest or labor market competition. These kinds of theories argue that one racial group will react negatively to another racial group when they feel like somehow this group poses an economic threat to them.

We don’t think that’s necessarily wrong, but we think that the bigger story is about symbolic standing and that economic effects likely matter most of all in terms of their symbolic status implications. So to demonstrate that, we tried to do studies where the status of whites was in some way threatened, but their economic well-being was not.

That’s a tricky thing to do. You’re not going to make anyone forget that Barack Obama is an ethnic minority, for example. So one way we thought we could get at that was increasing the subjective perception of him as a minority by darkening his skin in the official presidential photograph or lightening it in another condition. And one thing we found was that whites react to the darkened picture of Barack Obama with increased Tea Party support. There’s no way you can argue the appearance of the president has an economic effect on the viewer, but it had a significant effect.

You found that feelings of racial threat tend to significantly increase the likelihood that a white person will support the Tea Party in all five of your studies. But Tea Party supporters overwhelmingly reject the idea that they’re motivated by racial anxiety. Why the disconnect?

Well, first I should clarify that we are not arguing that racial status threats were the most compelling reason for someone to support the Tea Party. It’s possible that economic or libertarian ideals are a bigger causal effect. In fact, I think it’s very likely that there are a lot of people who are attracted to the libertarian values of the Tea Party who are not racially motivated at all. What we sought to establish is that there’s a significant contribution of racial threat to these dynamics.

It’s very likely these dynamics are non-conscious, and because of that they’re very hard to study. You can’t just ask people, “Do you support the Tea Party for racial reasons?” because of course they’ll say no. People may not even be aware of the racial animus coloring their responses, and even if they are, they likely know it’s totally socially unacceptable to report that. Those are the two barriers to studying these kinds of issues.

Do you think your findings should change how people think about the Tea Party? Should it change how the Republicans think about the concerns of that wing of their party?

A tanning salon sits vacant, out of business and with a "for sale" sign in the window.
Reuters/Mark Makela

Study 3 | Perceived Threat to Income

Purpose: Assess the effects of a perceived decline in whites’ economic advantage.

Methodology: 292 participants answered comprehension questions about fictitious economic data and then were given a survey to assess their politics and racial resentment. One group saw a graph that showed white income levels holding steady while minority income levels fell, while another group saw a graph that showed white income levels were falling while minority incomes held steady.

Results: Whites who saw their income falling reported stronger support for the Tea Party and higher levels of racial resentment than those in the other group.

It’s a very good question. I think the research shows that this is a powerful dynamic. And it’s important that political leaders, on the left and on the right, not stoke racial animus and anxiety for political advantage. That’s something many critics have argued Donald Trump has done in the 2016 campaign, although it would be very challenging to prove he’s done so intentionally. But this shows this is a dynamic that can warp a sober and just consideration of social issues.

One thing that’s interesting to me is that Glenn Beck has had a really negative response to Donald Trump’s campaign, and also toward the reality that many Tea Party supporters now support Donald Trump. And at one point he was quoted as saying something like — and I’m not going to get this exactly right — Tea Party supporters who support Donald Trump must just be responding to his racism.

That’s really telling. It’s suggestive to me that Glenn Beck probably is sincerely behind the Tea Party for primarily libertarian reasons and wants to believe that the Tea Party is more or less a populist expression of libertarianism. So he’s concerned by the possibility that some of his base could be co-opted by someone who doesn’t support libertarian economic policies, but does share some of the racialized rhetoric. And I think our research shows that Beck’s concern is a real possibility.

But there’s nothing really specific to the right about group position theory, as I understand it — people can feel threatened regardless of political affiliation. So why do you think it seems to have affected one side more than the other? Why is there no Tea Party on the left?

In our research we did find that even white liberals responded to these threats. But their response was moving from extreme opposition to the Tea Party to a more tepid opposition. So, these aren’t the people who showed up at rallies, but it wasn’t the case that we only found effects for white conservatives. We found the same kind of effects for all whites.

So why didn’t we see a liberal Tea Party or liberals at Tea Party rallies? Well, I think here you have to remember the Tea Party isn’t just some pro-white organization. It also has a substantial, highly conservative libertarian platform that makes it really only attractive to conservatives.

And, you know, a lot of people argue that the economic crisis led liberals to movements like Occupy, and eight years later to the Bernie Sanders campaign. I can’t say if that’s true or not, but I think it’s possible liberals went a different direction in response to a similar trigger.

Plus white liberals like Barack Obama. So he didn’t constitute a major threat that had people out in the streets, because for liberals this was a great political success. The threat they may have felt as members of one group was tempered by the success they felt as members of another.

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