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.