My last post prompted a good exchange regarding the possible racial motivations of the Tea Party movement, and I want to respond here to some of the very perceptive comments. Polemarchus raised an excellent point: if the Tea Party movement is primarily concerned with the scale of government spending and increasing deficits occurring under Democrat control, why didn’t the movement arise earlier, when the Republican-controlled Congress and President Bush turned a budget surplus into a series of deficits? Before addressing this issue, some background on the Tea Party movement is in order.
The beginning of the Tea Party movement is often traced to a diatribe by CNBC commentator Rick Santelli in February 2009 during which he threatened to dump “derivatives” as part of a Chicago “Tea Party” protesting the Obama administration mortgage bailout plan. Santelli’s rant, which was widely circulated on YouTube, captured a growing anger among a segment of voters who were worried about the confluence of the growth in government spending against the backdrop of an economic recession. But why in February 2009? Why not five years before when the budget surpluses disappeared under the Bush administration?
The answer, I suspect, is the magnitude of the economic calamity, starting with the bursting of the housing bubble in the fall, 2008, and the Bush-Obama response to the subsequent financial meltdown triggered by the housing collapse. The combination of a global recession, rising unemployment, a series of highly publicized government “bailout” programs and unprecedented deficits triggered a wave of anxiety among a section of voters that was not there during the Bush years.
So it is the magnitude of the economic problems, I think, that worries the Tea Partiers. Consider, for example, the budget deficit – it reappeared under the Bush administration, but it has more than tripled to a record high under President Obama and the Democrat majority in Congress.
Now, I am not trying to suggest this debt is unnecessary; it reflects government spending on a host of policies – the TARP program to bail out financial institutions, a jobs stimulus bill, bailouts of the auto industry, etc., that can be defended as economically necessary. But the Tea Party supporters are concerned about how to pay for it. Thus, according to the New York Times CBS poll, when asked what is the most important issue facing the nation today, 23% of Tea Partiers say the economy, which is the same proportion of adults more generally who cite this issue. However, 11% of Tea Parties say it is the budget deficit, compared to only 5% of adults who mention this issue. On the other hand, 22% of Tea Partiers cite jobs as the number one issue, compared to 27% of all adults. A slightly bigger plurality of Tea Partiers than adults say they are “most angry” about the size of government or government spending. So it is government spending and the deficit in particular that seems to be driving this movement.
Adding to the anxiety I think, is that people don’t really feel they understand how this crisis occurred – discussion of derivatives and mortgage-backed securities are very confusing – and they worry, when they see headlines trumpeting economic troubles in Greece and Spain, that the United States is next in line to suffer economic collapse. As I’ve noted in previous posts, these types of anger-fueled social movements tend to arise in periods of economic dislocation, when people feel particularly anxious and, as Marty suggests, worry that events are out of control. There’s a tendency to want to find someone or something to hold accountable for the events that have transpired. In this case, it’s the party in power. In 2008, that meant throwing the Republicans out.
In short, it is the perceived scale of the economic crisis inherited by Obama, and the Democrat response to that crisis in the form of increased spending, that explains why the Tea Party movement sprang up this past year, and not during the Bush administration. At least I think that is a reasonable explanation. To test that assumption, ask yourself whether this movement would have arisen if a Republican president – or if Hillary Clinton – was in office under the same conditions? Those arguing that the Tea Party movement is racially motivated would likely say no. Supporters would argue otherwise. I leave it to you to come to your own conclusion.
The more interesting issue, as I noted in the previous post, is whether this movement has the potential to influence the 2010 midterms. I believe it does. Surveys consistently show that Tea Party members are primarily focused on economic issues, rather than the more divisive social issues – abortion, gay marriage, school prayer – often associated with cultural conservatives.
In the New York Times poll, only 1% of Tea Partiers cited abortion as the most important issue, only 2% cited moral values, and another 1% mentioned immigration. Religious values are mentioned by 3% of Tea Partiers, and by 1% of adults. None mentioned gay marriage. With the exception of religious values, these totals are identical to the views of all adults. In other words, when it comes to ranking the importance of cultural issues, Tea Partiers’ views are virtually indistinguishable from the general population. (Note: this is NOT the same as saying Tea Partiers cultural views are no different from all adults. It is to say that cultural or moral issues are no more important to TP’ers than to all adults.) This suggests, then, that the movement is combining the fiscal conservative wing of the Republican Party with the more libertarian portion of the electorate, while downplaying the polarizing cultural issues that threatened to divide conservatives and drive moderates away.
More importantly, perhaps, that anger is directed at the incumbents in office. Fully 91% of Tea Partiers, but only 46% of all adults, disapprove of the way Obama is handling the economy. Similarly, 91% of Tea Partiers (compared to 53% of all adults) disapprove of his handling of the federal budget. Eighty nine percent say he has expanded the role of government too much (only 37% of adults agree). Thirteen percent of Tea Partiers cite “politicians/government” as the most important problem facing the nation, while only 4% of all adults do. A whopping 96% of Tea Partiers disapprove of the job Congress is doing, compared to 73% of all adults. In short, although the Tea Party may not be affiliated with any particular party, its members’ wrath seems clearly targeted toward those in power. It is perhaps telling for those who believe that this movement is primarily racially motivated that the TP’ers anger appears equally directed at Congress and the President.
Midterms tend to attract lower voter turnout, which means a greater proportion of the electorate will consist of attentive voters, which the Tea Partiers certainly are. Although the movement is not institutionalized – it’s not running a formal slate of candidates – all it needs to do is get enough people to the polls to vote against the incumbents to make a difference in 2010. At this point I don’t think that a movement supported by roughly 15-25% of those polled – no matter what their motivations – can be totally dismissed as politically inconsequential.