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Chris Parker goes toe-to-toe with Tea Party

Chris Parker returned to Grinnell College to discuss his new book, “Change They Can’t Believe In.” Photo by Shadman Asif.

Chris Parker, a political science professor at the University of Washington, Seattle, spoke at Grinnell on Tuesday, Nov. 11, about his recent book “Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America.” Parker’s talk revolved around the rise and identity of the Tea Party within the American political system, with a particular emphasis on the psychology behind the movement.

Besides the unique and relevant nature of his book, Parker was invited to speak at Grinnell given his connections with the College. Fourteen years ago, Parker received a fellowship through the Consortium for Faculty Diversity in Liberal Arts Colleges that allowed him to teach two semesters at Grinnell while he finished his doctoral dissertation.

“Grinnell’s a very special place for me,” Parker said. “It has played an instrumental role in my career.”

As the head of Grinnell’s Political Science department, Professor Barbara Trish mentioned the continuing relationship between the College and Parker as she introduced Parker to the large audience.

“We touch base with him at conferences whenever we see him, [and] I think we’ve talked to him when we had job openings to see if he has any insights or ideas about candidates who would be good for Grinnell,” she said.

After Trish’s introduction, Parker dove into his talk outlining his research on the Tea Party and its relation to the mainstream political establishment.

“There is something that explains their distaste for Obama beyond politics, beyond even race,” Parker observed.

Chris Parker  returned to Grinnell College to discuss his new book, “Change They Can’t Believe In.” Photo by Shadman Asif.
Chris Parker returned to Grinnell College to discuss his new book, “Change They Can’t Believe In.”
Photo by Shadman Asif.

He identified several reactionary movements throughout American history, including the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and the John Birch Society, which he thought closely resembled the role the Tea Party plays in our current society.

“These people are always there, they just need something in the culture to activate them,” Parker said.

The cultural trigger in the case of the modern Tea Party, Parker argued, was the election of Barack Obama in 2008. He backed up his point with a series of pictures of signs at Tea Party rallies, almost all of which had hysterical, and often racist, references to Obama.

Following the slide show, he put on a quick promotional clip created by Sarah Palin’s political action committee in praise of the grassroots movement. Despite the clip’s insistence that the movement was about small government, common sense policy and traditional morals, Parker claimed that in reality the Tea Party is a reactionary movement that was birthed from a pervasive fear of social change.

Quoting the historian Richard Hofstadter, Parker said, “The pseudo-conservative believes a vast and sinister conspiracy … is in motion to undermine and destroy his way of life.”

According to him, it is this fear, primarily emanating from people who are privileged in the social order, which is the driver behind of reactionary movements like the Tea Party. Much of Parker’s latest research dealt with the nature of the dialogue used in Tea Party circles. He found that many of the articles on Tea Party websites, and several personal statements by Tea Party supporters, revolved around conspiracy theories and irrational fear over the actions of the Obama presidency. This, Parker argued, differs greatly from the type of speech that was observed on more mainstream conservative sources.

While answering a question raised by an audience member on the perceived connection between moderate Republicans and the Tea Party, Parker clarified that “it’s not a difference in degree, it’s a difference in content.”

In closing his presentation, Parker elaborated on his future research plans, which include exporting his research on American reactionary movements to nations across the globe. He mentioned several foreign political parties, including France’s National Front and Italy’s Northern League, which he thought fit his description of a reactionary movement.

“The fact of the matter is that my data has worked really well in Australia, and I think it will work well in other nations as well,” Parker said.

Many of Grinnell’s faculty in the Political Science Department stated that they were excited to see Parker back on campus.

“Back then a lot of you were colleagues, but now I can call you friends,” Parker remarked.

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  • M

    Moseying byNov 14, 2014 at 12:05 pm

    You’re welcome, admin. As one with a critical interest in media distortion via edits, quotes, etc., I’d like to ask how this attribution error was made.

    At what point was “cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter” introduced into the narrative? Did Dr. Parker mention him at all? Or did Jonathan Sundby assume that a reference to Hofstadter would necessarily be for the “hipper” of the two academic titans by that name, unaware of the much more relevant but older work of Richard Hofstadter?

    More generally, the piece gives no indication of criticism of Dr. Parker’s points from a large audience, but rather a marked unanimity; the one audience question described is very soft. If there really were no sparks of dissention, then isn’t it fair to speculate ipso facto that Dr. Parker’s perspective, whatever it might be, actually represents a sort of enforced mental conformity, and thus is itself “privileged in the social order” of Grinnell, to turn the critical lens around?

  • J

    Josh HarufNov 14, 2014 at 7:12 am

    The TEA party have been tax protesters, first protests in 2006 when Congress started their ‘stimulus’ spending spree. Obama was quite unknown at the time, so could not have been the focus of their protests.

    Why spread the lie that they only hate Obama?
    Or that their only motivation is finding his skin color ‘yucky’?

    Implicitly, you are claiming that they would be content if some other Democrat was running things.

    Implicitly, you are also claiming that any other Democrat (or Republican) would have 100% support of the public, therefore it must be Obama’s skin color that engenders opposition.

    Many people make a very fine living perpetuating the pseudoscience of ‘race’. Methinks that could be the motivation behind this and many, many other writings.

    Haruf, ’06

  • M

    Moseying byNov 14, 2014 at 6:18 am

    Wouldn’t “vast and sinister conspiracy” quote actually be from historian Richard (not cognitive scientist Douglas) Hofstadter?

    • A

      adminNov 14, 2014 at 10:40 am

      Good catch! Thanks!

  • M

    mmercier0921Nov 14, 2014 at 5:42 am

    us reactoonary birchers are alive and well. this country, as we warned, is presently up to its eyrballs. in marxists. today.

    from the president to the lunch lady in your public schools, every aspect of individual liberty and life itself is under relentless assault.

    it is comforting to write us off as conspiracy loons, as you watch your country consciously turned in to a third world cesspool; by politicins who destroy with impunity everything they touch.

  • K

    KimberlyNov 14, 2014 at 4:50 am

    Amazing how PAID – money for “research” activists are given cover for their idiot opinions. Obama is not “black”. I grew up in Hawaii and he was not discriminated against more than I a lowly howli. He is more white than black and it is his idiot white side I impune! Stop the shitty race stuff and get real. His policies suck big time. They will suck the life blood out of the generations after the baby boomers (I am one) who created this mess. Amen.