A recent article in the New York Times reveals survey information about the Tea Party that I found interesting.
Common wisdom is that the Tea Party spontaneously sprung whole from the minds of those across the country that were unhappy with what they saw as irresponsible spending by the Obama administration. These were characterized as everyday apolitical folks who were finally so fed up with the federal government that they took to the streets. The board of trade rant is a prime example.
The truth revealed in the survey is that Tea Party supporters are conservative Christian Republicans. They are not political neophytes, but much more likely to have contacted their elected officials than the normal voter. In fact, according to the survey, strong affiliation with the Republican Party was the single most accurate predictor of Tea Party membership.
These folks also did not suffer from the Great Recession in ways that were significantly different than anyone else. So it wasn’t undo economic distress that drove them to activism. Also concern over the size of government was not the primary motivation of most Tea Party members.
So what does distinguish Tea Party members from the run of the mill Republican or Democrat?
Tea Party members are overwhelmingly white, even whiter than Republicans. They have an even lower regard for immigrants and blacks than regular white Republicans. So having an African American in the White House is a problem for them. Finally, next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter is a desire to see religion play a prominent role in politics. So having an African American in the White House with a Muslim-sounding name was more than many of them could take.
In contrast, according to the survey, the appeal to Tea Party supporters of Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry has much more to do with their overt use of religious language and imagery than it does their position on the budget or taxes.
What is interesting is that as the rest of the country becomes more aware of what the real Tea Party agenda is, they are rejecting it. What is fascinating about this shift of opinion is that it comes at a time when the American electorate IS moving strongly in the direction of the Tea Party on economic issues. What the American electorate opposes is the injection of religion into politics. As a result, the Tea Party has lost most of the support that it had at its inception and now ranks right alongside the Christian Right in popularity at about 20% of the population. That level of support is now lowest among all political groups. A curious irony is that even Muslims and atheists, two groups most hated by the Tea Party, are now held in higher regard by the rest of the country than the Tea Party.
The bottom line is that on everything except the size of government, Tea Party supporters are out of step with most Americans including mainline Republicans. The Tea Party movement is now looking more and more like the anti-war movement of the 70’s. That group brought a lot of energy to the Democratic Party and got George McGovern nominated. They also alienated moderate voters, weakened the Democratic coalition that had successfully dominated American politics for forty years, and laid the groundwork for the Reagan revolution. If the Republicans continue to embrace the Tea Party, they run the risk of repeating this history.