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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3 Responses to The yeomen and the Tea Party

  1. Tim says:

    One of the more the interesting campaign events I thought during Scott Brown’s last campaign is when he stopped at the Wachusett Mountain ski area with former governor Paul Cellucci(Personally it was at this moment seeing him with a bullhorn standing on a snow covered picnic table that I suspected he would win). Now Wachusett isn’t Aspen or even a big northern New England ski area such as Killington but skiing anywhere is hardly a sport of the working poor and clearly making an appearance at a ski area did not at all appear to be “elistist” in the eyes of the Massachusetts electorate. It is also telling that the Crowley familiy which is pretty prominent in Central Mass due to their ownership of Polar Beverages(one of more prominent “smokestack” companies in the state) and Wachusett gave at least an implicit endorsement by allowing Brown to make an appearance.

    My other hunch although I don’t have any data to back it up is that Brown did better with voters with only a college education or a graduate degree in law or business while Coakley did better with voters with graduate level degrees outside of law and business.(Both categories are highly represented in Massachusetts compared to the country at large)

    • Maurice T. Cunningham says:


      The AFL-CIO commissioned Hart Research Associates to do a poll the night of the special election. I have seen the toplines but not crosstabs, but here is part of Hart’s analysis from a memo they did:

      “1. This was a working-class revolt, and it reveals the danger to
      Democrats of not successfully addressing workers’ economic
       Coakley won this election by five points among college graduates, but lost the
      non-college vote by a 20-point margin. This represents a huge swing among
      non-college voters since 2008, when Obama won by 21 points, for a net swing
      of 41 points. (The comparable change among college graduates was a net
      25-point decline, from +30 to +5).
       Non-college men voted for Brown by a 27-point margin (59% to 32%), and
      non-college women also voted for Brown by 13 points (while college women
      went for Coakley by 13 points).
       Gender dynamics were less important than the class dimension: the 15-point
      gender gap (men voted for Brown by 13 points, women voted for Coakley by
      two points) was actually considerably smaller than the 24-point gap in 2008.”

      I’m with you wondering if there is a split among the highly educateds between the law/business and other grad degrees. If Coakley didn’t hold folks with law degrees that would be pretty bad for an AG. I hope I can do some work on that one.

      Good insight on the Wachusett appearance, you can be our eyes and ears in the field. I’d be more impressed if he visited Wachusett Brewery. That Green Monstah IPA is yummy.

  2. Pingback: Yeomen and Tea Party part three | MassPoliticsProfs

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