I had tried contacting various people associated with different tea party organizations around Fresno, but hadn’t been able to set up any meeting times. For the most part the tea party groups seem to be without a lot of centralized leadership and meet only periodically at restaurants or churches. There is an actual physical office for the Tea Party Regional Office in Fresno, but when I went by there was nobody around and the room seemed set up as a gathering space and not as an organization’s office, with stacking chairs in rows, lots of big rally banners on the wall, and recycling containers by the door labelled Tea Party Recycles.
From there we went to the Fresno County Republican headquarters, a few long, business-center blocks away. The woman at the desk in the small, tidy room was friendly but said she couldn’t talk and told me another woman would be back from lunch in half an hour who I should meet with. But when I came back and found her and another woman in the office, the secretary told me, “This isn’t the woman I was talking about and we are not allowed to talk to you,” then gave me the phone number of the county spokesman to call. I explained that it wasn’t policy I was interested in, but people’s personal reasons for their political beliefs. I kept asking very gentle questions and after a little while they seemed to relax and the second woman offered me a seat.
They were both volunteers and part of a Republican Women’s evening group. My impression was that they were involved in the organization more as a social group than anything else. The secretary said she had been conservative her whole life. The other woman had grown up in a family that voted democrat outside of Baltimore, but she said that was because back then the Democratic Party was the party of the working class, and she almost laughed, continuing that she didn’t think that was true anymore. She also said that she voted Republican because she was Christian and that Christians vote according to values. I tried to gently question that by telling her that I was brought up by a Quaker family, which is also Christian, but that Quakers tend to vote for Democrat because of their different religious values, including Pacifism. They seemed genuinely surprised.
The political issue that concerned them the most was that they believe Democrats are making the country into a welfare state. They had both worked in schools and each told stories about how negatively welfare practices affected their students. One told a story of trying to convince a sixth grader that it was necessary for them to learn how to read, arguing that they would need to read to have a job, only to have the student object by saying he did not need to get a job because, like his mom, he would just get a check from the government each month. The other woman had mentored a 13 year old year girl who told her boldly she wanted to get “knocked up” so that she could get on welfare. I agreed with them that to the extent that welfare becomes a disincentive for people trying to make a good life, it does them and society a disservice. The most common argument I hear against the Democrats is that they want to create more of a welfare state, which is also described as making the US more like Europe, with its higher tax rates, higher levels of social programs and state funding, and its economies collapsing under debt while its citizens riot against national austerity measures.
The two women also cited gangs as an important political issue. The secretary said the Hmong are the worst here, but in other parts of town they are Hispanic and African American. I couldn’t tell she was talking specifically about gang activity or just neighborhood demographics. She couldn’t remember the word for it, but said they had just started writing on buildings in the neighborhood, in reference to graffiti. At the end of our conversation the secretary still didn’t want to be photographed but the other woman said she wasn’t ashamed of her politics and consented.