The yeomen and the Tea Party

A while back I introduced the four cultural groups in Massachusetts politics written about by Edgar Litt in 1965 in The Political Cultures of Massachusetts: the patricians, workers, managers, and yeomen. I’d like to spend a little more time visiting with each group and suggest their relevance to modern day politics.

The yeomen are a category I’m rethinking because some of the basic attributes Litt saw are gone. Some, but not all. Think Tea Party, for now.

 Here’s how I described the yeomen in More Mass. political culture – Edgar Litt:

“The yeomen to Litt were small town lower-middle and working class Protestants and Republicans, often small business men, parochial in their outlook and aggressively opposed to change. They are conservative across a range of social and fiscal issues, and deeply suspicious of corporations and unions.”

Litt found the yeomen to be solidly Republican and they still are – indeed for the most part they regard the Democrats as a corrupt cabal. This loyalty and the basic facts of Massachusetts political life – that the Democrats almost always win – feeds the sense of frustration that is a core characteristic of the yeomen. The Republican establishment is largely concerned with fielding gubernatorial candidates who can appeal to managers, so that yeomen are not necessarily enthused by even Republican governors. They did, however, invest great energy in the Scott Brown campaign. Moreover though the Republicans’ manager for Governor candidate Charlie Baker failed in 2010, the party picked up fifteen seats in the state house of representatives, including a number in such yeomen strongholds of former days as the rural towns of Worcester county and even in the small Norfolk County cities of Attleboro and Taunton – near to Scott Brown’s hometown of Wrentham.

Though the decentralized nature and lack of coherence make exact estimates of the size of the Tea Party in Massachusetts difficult, it is not a trifling presence. An October 2010 report by the MassInc Polling Group found a “sizeable audience” for the Tea Party’s message. MassInc’s own poll found that 40% of likely voters in the state had a favorable view of the Tea Party (versus 40% unfavorable); that a Boston Globe poll had shown that 25% support the movement, with 44% in opposition; and that a Rasmussen poll found that 13% of Massachusetts residents considered  themselves part of the Tea Party movement. Sixty-five percent of conservatives regarded the Tea Party favorably. In an influential article by Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin, “The tea party and the remaking of republican conservatism”. Perspectives on Politics 9 (1): 25-43 the authors report that the Greater Boston Tea Party is one of the larger online Tea Party communities in the country, as measured by MeetUp membership

            Litt would recognize many of the traits of the yeomen now fueling the Tea Party movement in Massachusetts. He wrote of the yeomen that “The prevailing ethos is that of nineteenth-century America with its emphasis on individual initiative, its distrust of bigness in government, corporations, labor unions, and international organizations . . . .” This is the sort of approach one can easily access by turning to, the popular blog of young conservatives.

A more important influence is Fox News. Fox is the primary news source for Tea Party members in Massachusetts as elsewhere, with an assist from talk radio and the conservative blogosphere. Williamson et al. argue that “the best way to understand Fox News is as a national advocacy organization actively fostering a social protest identity.”

It is this nationalization of the Tea Party movement that sets it apart from Litt’s Yeomen (though I have suggested another national antecedent, the Know-Nothing Party, in The Know Somethings?). The yeomen were resolutely local. They attended town meeting, served their neighbors with their small businesses, and got their news from the local paper.  The Tea Party movement in Massachusetts is but part of a loose national coalition, depends on Fox News and Rush Limbaugh to shape its political views, and is led not by a Bay Stater but by Christen Varley, a native Ohioan who initially engaged in Massachusetts politics through the decidedly non-small town venue of blogging. Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes, 41.

So there are some similarities and differences. We’ll explore some more in upcoming posts.

About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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