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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter November 13, 2015

The Strategic Promotion of Distrust in Government in the Tea Party Age

Amy Fried and Douglas B. Harris
From the journal The Forum


This paper argues that distrust in government is not an inadvertent byproduct of economic change, scandals, and cultural and identity politics, but rather grows out of strategic efforts to promote and harness it for political purposes. Elites encouraging distrust interact with grassroots movements, which they can only loosely direct and control. Identifying four strategic benefits of distrust: organizational, electoral, institutional and policy, the paper discusses how Republicans and conservative movement organizations in the Tea Party age used distrust to develop groups and achieve coherence, try to influence primaries and win elections, argue for the constitutional powers of institutions they control, and seek to influence public policy. Paying special attention to health policy, we examine how, after distrust was successfully used to thwart President Bill Clinton’s proposed reforms, it was employed to try to stop and then to exact a price for President Barack Obama’s passage of the Affordable Care Act. While Tea Party rhetoric and current streams of distrust are often associated with racialized messages and anti-Obama sentiment, we contend they are likely to persist after Obama leaves office, particularly given the Tea Party’s comfort with ungovernability and long-standing conservative use of government distrust.

Corresponding author: Amy Fried, Department of Political Science, University of Maine, 5754 North Stevens Hall, Orono, ME 04469, USA, e-mail:


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Published Online: 2015-11-13
Published in Print: 2015-10-1

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