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Tea Party Health Narratives and Belief Polarization: the Journey to Killing Grandma

Kristin Haltinner Dilshani Sarathchandra

*Corresponding author: Kristin Haltinner khaltinner@uidaho.edu


In the past decade the U.S. public has expressed varying degrees of skepticism about certain factual claims, and of “expertise” more broadly. Ideological and partisan belief polarization seems to have elevated public anxiety about topics ranging from climate change and vaccines to immigration and healthcare policy. Furthermore, polarized narratives about scientific, medical, and political topics have encouraged “directionally motivated cognition”, leading to a decline in institutional trust among some fractions of the U.S. political spectrum. Our case study of the Tea Party Patriots (TPP) (i.e. a political organization that promotes the Tea Party goals) uses data from 45 interviews, 80 hours of participant observation, and content analysis of movement literature, to examine the nature and nuance of health narratives employed by the Tea Party. Specifically, we explain a central narrative in TPP organizing that features “a villainous Left covertly seeking to harm U.S. citizens” as the root of three key TPP health care narratives: (1) Democratic health initiatives enslaving youth; (2) the political left profiting from covertly making Americans dependent on state’s health care programs; and (3) the left clandestinely seeking to violate the constitution as represented by their efforts to “kill grandma”. These narratives reflect the increased polarization of attitudes towards healthcare, as well as a broader distrust of the political left who, activists believe, are advancing a political agenda of social control. Ultimately, we argue that culturally driven healthcare narratives of the Tea Party have had a significant impact on right-wing public opinion and Republican politics regarding U.S. healthcare policy. Many Tea Party concerns are reflected in the Republican policy positions, including those related to the Affordable Care Act of 2010.

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