The Corner

The Tea Party and the ‘New Untamed’

A woman wearing a face mask holds a placard as hundreds of supporters of the Michigan Conservative Coalition protest against the state’s extended stay-at-home order at the Capitol building in Lansing, Mich., April 15, 2020. (Seth Herald/Reuters)

My colleague Rich Lowry pens an excellent column that draws comparisons between those publicly protesting the excesses of the pandemic lockdowns and the Tea Party movement that erupted in 2009 in response to Big Government’s push to get much bigger, and quickly.

The column serves as a timely opportunity to draw attention to a new study — conducted by Anne Sorock Segal and Jack Sorock of the Frontier Center (I am a board member) — on what they are calling the “Reopen Movement.” Their research seeks to understand and convey the motivations of citizens who are the strongest advocates — including those engaged in defiant public protesting — for reopening states under government-imposed “stay at home” orders. Segal and Sorock say that critics of the Reopen protestors are “getting it wrong.” Very much so.

The study’s methods include polling (of 974 respondents) and, from a smaller contingent, “behavioral event modeling” — a drill-down method that unveils the deep values that motivate either public action or vocal support for the protestors. In essence, the undertaking answers the fundamental question: Just who are these Reopeners? And the obvious comparison: Are they Tea Party 2.0? There are great similarities but also some major differences. Indeed, among the Reopeners, there is even a goodly amount of indifference to Tea Party 1.0.

Here are the four key finding the study (the abstract is here) has discovered:

  1. Reopeners learn the expanse of their own strength, which is energizing and that results in a sense of freedom. This is aided by experiencing the “felt freedom” alongside others.
  2. They want to match their actions with their sentiments and are compelled to rise to the occasion in the face of perceived tyranny.
  3. They want accountability and justice for what they believe has been a lack of transparency, flawed science, and unacceptable infringements of civil rights. They believe that protecting and restoring those rights must be foundational to the next steps forward for America.
  4. A majority believe they have a Christian duty to model behavior that encourages others, defends victims of government oppression, and serves as a wake-up call that will empower others.

This movement is not so much political as it is personal and self-definitional (a gut check on values that activate one to enter the public foray), selfless (this is not about getting my favorite bar back in the business of pouring pints), and also communal, all of it prompted by and occurring within a historical crisis for America. From the findings:

Reopeners said that, while this moment of crisis challenges their sense of who they are, their actions of defiance allow them to take pride in who they are. The tone of their defiance is bold, with two outcomes: First, their boldness works — it causes authorities to back down. Second, their boldness matches the moment — the scale and disposition of government action has been monumental, and Reopeners believe they are showing they understand the importance of this challenge to freedom. Reopeners say achieving a political victory in the short-term, though important, is secondary. The primary objective is to answer the question “who am I?” during what feels like a watershed moment. Reopeners are concerned they might not live up to the precedents of others who rose to meet similar moments in American and world history. For those who took action, they experienced boldness and courage, and learned they might be able to contribute or sacrifice going forward in ways that had never before been tested.

The study, which surveyed nearly 1,000 subjects, provides worthwhile numerical findings on make-up, where Reopeners stand politically, and on Trump, their views of the Tea Party, and more. Among the results:

  • Over 68 percent are registered Republicans, and nearly 23 per cent are Independent or unaffiliated.
  • 87 percent voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and nearly 97 percent say they will vote for him in November
  • There’s a 17 percent growth in support for Trump among Independent Reopeners
  • 83 percent had never attended a Tea Party rally, and 39 percent were “either neutral, unsure, or opposed to the Tea Party movement” — the “opposed” though being a small 2 percent.
  • This is a very religious/spiritual movement in makeup: 91 per cent of Reopeners described themselves as “having some religion,” with 80 percent self-defining as Christians (and mostly unaffiliated; i.e., not Catholic, Evangelical, or “Mainline).

Given the last point, it should not come as a surprise that the cancellation of church services on Easter played a big role in engendering this movement:

When Easter Sunday fell in the middle of the coronavirus shutdowns, many of the Reopener churchgoers took one of three paths: (1) they sought out a new church, often further away; (2) they held their own spiritual gathering in someone’s home, or; (3) they had time available to catch up on the news.

The research sought to get to the root of what made an individual actually take to the streets to protist. Numerous emotional factors and states of mind bear on this, but the study found that three events or circumstances in particular proved key to motivation. One is that Reopeners witnessed harm to others, which led them to take on the role of becoming advocates for others. Another: Reopeners “formed the opinion that data and science presented to them were false, misleading, or inconclusive.” And last: As the shutdowns provided people with time to reflect, investigate, and communicate, they increased the exchange of opinions with others, which in turn “led them to seek out a broader community to evaluate the data, provide and receive support against hostility, and discuss next steps.”

The study’s appendix provides an interesting comparison of attributes between the Reopen Movement (“required mental strength to defy”) and the Tea Party (allows me to be proactive”) — and also with other recent mass movements, such as the anti–Scott Walker protests in Wisconsin, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter. It’s worth the read.

So, if it’s not Tea Party 2.0, then . . . how best to describe the Reopeners? Segal and Sorock suggest considering them as “The New Untamed.” Here’s the study’s conclusion:

The conventional media narrative is that America is a fractured nation, perhaps irreparably. Media characterize competing views about Coronavirus as a divide between the selfish and the selfless, and view Reopeners as putting their self-interests first.  Study 2 shows that they are generally, in fact, isolated — and seek out others to express dissent quietly so as not to be shamed for their questions. Based on the panel survey data, we conclude that the Reopen movement does not appear to be a re-hash of conservative mass movements like the Tea Party, and that Reopeners are strongly faith-driven and new to political activism.

This is consistent with an “untamed mindset” that the Frontier Center is tracking across many mass movements, ideologies, and topics. This mindset has many facets. Americans have been opting-out of “safe and narrow” paths in other areas, including by homeschooling, adopting cost-sharing plans to replace health insurance, and establishing home churches. The Frontier Center has also tracked a second pathway of compliance toward safety and peace of mind. Our values research with the Reopeners revealed a paradox: They find peace of mind through defiance, because it results in felt-freedom, understanding of their own mettle, holding authorities accountable, and standing up for others.

The data reveal that critics of the Reopen protesters are right that America needs renewed selflessness, but that they are wrong if they imagine that this results from compliance with flawed science and restricted freedom. A new selflessness can come from citizens who seek to remain untamed by authority. The Reopeners make clear that selflessness can be found in these everyday Americans who, while they do not seek to be political activists or agitators, feel compelled to act at what they believe is a defining moment in our history.

The protesters are demonstrating a new selflessness — a sacrifice different from staying at home and closing nonessential businesses. Their selflessness requires moving into untamed territory, which in this case risks very real conflict with authorities. These Untamed are resisting out of duty to what they say is unlawful infringement of their rights based on unscientific, flawed premises that result in deeply troubling collateral damage to the American community.

The new untamed territory is a mindset. First, American society is profoundly divided over who is the hero and who is the antihero in our modern story. The threat of a pandemic reveals that “selflessness” based on fear isn’t necessarily selflessness — it may in fact be selfishness. Reopeners are demonstrating selflessness by their determination to overcome fear for what for them is a greater cause. The Frontier Center has found that this is a consistent factor in recent mass movements, and that the “untamed mindset” can be found across years, movements, political issues, and ideologies.

The New Untamed framework is critical for how we understand the meaning of the coronavirus conflict, and for what actions we take in the name of protecting America. Aggressive government efforts to stop the spread of Coronavirus makes sense if America’s health is defined by being protected from the virus. If that is an incorrect measure of America’s health, however, then shutdowns and restricting rights are counterproductive and harmful. They may weaken freedom, the true foundation of America’s health.

Far from being a threat to America’s health, Reopen protests may be its medicine—suggesting that American culture does not flourish by looking back but by retesting its convictions.

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