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The Forum

A Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics

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Volume 13, Issue 3


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

Amy Fried
  • Corresponding author
  • Department of Political Science, University of Maine, 5754 North Stevens Hall, Orono, ME 04469, USA
  • Email
  • Other articles by this author:
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/ Douglas B. Harris
Published Online: 2015-11-13 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/for-2015-0028


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.


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About the article

Amy Fried

Amy Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. In addition to numerous articles and book chapters on public opinion and political participation, she is the author of Pathways to Polling: Crisis, Cooperation and the Making of Public Opinion Professions (Routledge Press) and Muffled Echoes: Oliver North and the Politics of Public Opinion (Columbia University Press). Recently she has been conducting research on opinion research on racial tensions during World War II, as well as the roots of contemporary strategic uses of distrust.

Douglas B. Harris

Douglas B. Harris is Professor of Political Science at Loyola University Maryland. In addition to numerous articles and book chapters on Congress, political parties, and political development, he is co-author of The Austin-Boston Connection: Five Decades of House Democratic Leadership, 1937–1989 (Texas A&M University Press) and co-editor of Doing Archival Research in Political Science (Cambria Press). His current project examines intra-party races for leadership posts in the House of Representatives.

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

Published Online: 2015-11-13

Published in Print: 2015-10-01

Citation Information: The Forum, Volume 13, Issue 3, Pages 417–443, ISSN (Online) 1540-8884, ISSN (Print) 2194-6183, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/for-2015-0028.

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