UW News

October 22, 2014

Traditional, tea party conservatives seem split on foreign policy

UW News

Foreign policy looms large as the 2014 midterm elections approach. But traditional conservatives and their tea party counterparts may bring different concerns and motivations to the November ballot, according to a University of Washington political scientist.

While traditional conservatives seem most motivated by concern over American security, Christopher Parker, UW professor of political science, suggests that those identifying as tea party conservatives have somewhat more mixed motivations, linked with agitation over the Obama presidency and stemming from a feeling of “losing their country” to a “decline of American ethno-cultural dominance.”

“There is no such thing as ‘conservative’ foreign policy if it means that all conservatives speak with a single voice,” Parker said. “Instead, conservatives are divided on what motivates their foreign policy preferences: securing American interests, or ethno-cultural threat.”

Parker and co-author Rachel Blum, a doctoral student at Georgetown University, came to this view after reviewing recent literature on public attitudes toward foreign policy and examining the 2012 American National Election Study, an in-person and Internet survey of about 6,000 voters by Stanford University and the University of Michigan. They published their views in the October 17, 2014, “Issues in Governance Studies” report, published by the Brookings Institution.

The election study, they say, revealed a wide difference between traditional or “establishment” conservatives and their tea party counterparts on the question of whether America was safer than in 2008. Fully 70 percent of tea party conservatives disagreed that America had grown safer in the intervening years, compared to about 39 percent of traditional conservatives.

They noted a significant but smaller difference when respondents were asked if U.S. strength had increased since 2008: Far more tea party conservatives — about 90 percent — disagreed, compared with about 70 percent among more traditional conservatives.

“At first glance, these are fairly innocuous questions,” the researchers wrote. “However, upon closer inspection, 2008 coincides with the beginning of the Obama administration. This makes it likely that respondents are thinking about Obama and his administration’s leadership when they are answering these questions.”

Asked about foreign policy toward Iran, tea partyers and traditional conservatives were in near-total agreement that invasion was not a viable option, but tea partyers more heavily favored only economic sanctions as well as the possible bombing of Iran nuclear sites.

Parker and Blum ascribe these philosophical differences to the differing motivations of the two groups. The tea party, they argue, is motivated largely by “a nationalist sentiment” that dates back to the days of President Andrew Jackson.

“Tea party conservatives, more than establishment conservatives, are motivated by fear and anxiety associated with the belief that the America to which they’ve become accustomed, in which white men have dominated from the beginning, is in rapid decline,” the researchers write.

Parker and UW colleague Matt Barreto examined political differences between traditional conservatives and tea partyers on domestic issues in their 2013 book, “Change they Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and the Politics of Paranoia.” They found overwhelmingly more tea partyers than traditional conservatives agreeing to the extreme statement that President Obama is “destroying the country.”

Parker and Blum argue that the same predisposition carries over to the foreign policy views of tea party conservatives.

“Because conservatives appear split on these important issues,” they conclude, “the midterms promise to pose a challenge, espe­cially in Senate where some seats — and perhaps the balance of power in the upper chamber — may hinge on foreign policy.”


For more information, contact Parker at 510-285-7770 or csparker@uw.edu.