Demographically, that is.
Gallup has released a random survey of those who support the Tea Party movement and the findings help dispel the notion propagated on some web sites that the group consists largely of Chevy-driving bitter white males who can’t spell. In fact, as this Gallup table indicates, Tea Partiers are, in terms of age, education, employment and race, almost indistinguishable from a cross-section of all Americans.
They are slightly more male, and slightly more affluent, than a comparable sample of Americans. But what really distinguish the Tea Partiers are their political views. As the following table shows, they are more likely to be Republican, and more likely to hold conservative views, than the comparison group. Interestingly, however, about half of the movement’s support comes from non-Republicans (assuming we treat independents as true independents.) So this is clearly not a purely partisan movement.
All told, some 28% of those surveyed say they support the Tea Party movement, making it as, or more, popular, right now, than the Republican Party, according to some polls. Interestingly, the number of independents who support the movement are about the same proportion as in the population at large.
Now, there are a couple of caveats to keep in mind in interpreting these results. First, these are people who claim to support the movement. It may not reflect the more activist element that actually shows up to Tea Party rallies. Second, as with any poll, question wording can skew results. In this case, Gallup asks about Tea Partiers’ views on abortion. However, by limiting the choice to either “pro-life” or “pro-choice”, Gallup fails to tap into the more nuanced views most Americans, including I’m guessing Tea Partiers, have regarding abortion. Few Americans characterize themselves as purely “prochoice” or “prolife” if given a broader range of options.
Nonetheless, the survey is a welcome first step in trying to understand an increasingly influential political movement, one that may be in a position to shape results in the upcoming midterm elections. To this point, media opinion pieces (as in New York Times‘ columns here and here) have tended to portray the movement as agglomeration of right-wing antigovernment types mingling with the bitter bible thumping crowd. But, as the Gallup data indicates, it’s clear that the movement is more widely-based. It appears to be tapping into a deep-seated unease that cuts across economic and educational lines, one predicated on worries about the economy and about “bigness” – big banks, big corporate bailouts, big government health programs and, most worrisome – big debt in general. At this point it is unclear to me whether this loose and as yet unfocused social movement will translate into an effective political force that influences the 2010 midterm elections, and the following presidential election.
Historically, the Tea Party movement fits well with a long American tradition of anti ”bigness”-based social movements dating back to Jacksonian democracy and opposition to a U.S.-chartered bank during the 1830’s through the agrarian-based populist movement of the 1890’s and the “share-the-wealth” Townsend movement of the 1930’s and up to the anti-tax revolution of the late 1970’s. Perhaps the most recent comparable movement was that led by Ross Perot who, as the head of the Reform Party, used voter outrage over government spending and budget deficits to win nearly 20% of the popular presidential vote in 1992. In this respect, the Tea Party movement is certainly not new, and indeed is distinctly American.
The problem with sustaining such movements is that their antigovernment sentiment makes it difficult for members to take the steps, such as organizing to run candidates, which are required to transform a movement fueled by voter outrage into an institutionalized party or make sustained policy changes. In this respect, the antitax movement spawned by property tax rollbacks in California and Massachusetts is an exception to the rule; it resulted in an enduring shift in how states raised revenue, and helped lay the basis for the Reagan era. History suggests, however, that if the Tea Party movement continues to grow, the passions that fuel it will likely be coopted, perhaps in watered-down form, by one of the two existing parties. At this point, Democrats have to worry that the anti-incumbent, anti-government sentiment driving Tea Party activism will most directly target them in 2010. For Democrats, the best way to defuse that anger, and weaken the movement, is to hope that the early signs of economic recovery are a harbinger of better things to come.
If conditions do not improve, however – if the economy remains mired in slow growth and high unemployment, I expect the next phase in the Tea Party movement will be to coalesce around a figurehead who can embrace its ideals and compete in the 2012 presidential elections.
And who might that be? I can’t see the future. But I can see, when I look out my back door in Ripton, the distant shores of Alaska.