A few weeks back I posted a brief summary of a Gallup Poll survey that compared the views and backgrounds of those in the Tea Party movement with a random sample of American adults. As the first survey of the Tea Party movement, the findings were of particular interest to me since – without The Cable – I hadn’t paid much attention to the movement. I noted two important results from the Gallup survey: that demographically, Tea Party supporters did not differ dramatically from a random cross section of Americans, but that ideologically it was a distinctly conservative movement, with half of its support coming from the Republican Party. I concluded by noting that in its broad outlines, the Tea Party phenomenon echoed previous social movements in American history, almost all of which arose during time of economic uncertainty.
The reaction to my post, particularly among my more progressive readers, was fascinating. Many emailed me directly to point out other survey data – most published after the Gallup results – that suggested the Tea Party movement was NOT a representative cross-section of Americans more generally. In fact, Tea Party supporters are far more likely to be white. Subsequent survey suggests that this is, indeed, the case, although the extent of the movement’s “whiteness” varies depending on how one defines and samples the Tea Party membership. (In defense of Gallup, their initial survey also suggested that Tea Partiers were slightly more likely to be white as well.)
I have now collected a half-dozen surveys on the Tea Party movement and hope to do a more extended analysis in a future blog. Of more immediate interest to me, however, is the subtext to this point regarding how “white” is the Tea Party movement. As several readers suggested to me, the point is important because it indicates that the Tea Party supporters are also more likely to be racist! I should be clear that it wasn’t only people writing me who made this claim – it was a point that was made by liberal pundits more generally in the aftermath of the Gallup poll in many columns (see, for example, here and here and here.)
The general sentiment on the Left expressed in these and other columns is well captured by E.J. Dionne, who writes: “The tea party is nothing new. It represents a relatively small minority of Americans on the right end of politics, and it will not determine the outcome of the 2010 elections. …In fact, both parties stand to lose if they accept the laughable notion that this media-created protest movement is the voice of true populism.” Moreover, Dionne goes on to suggest: “Part of the anger at President Obama among Tea Partiers does appear to be driven by racial concerns.”
The pushback by progressives against any notion that the Tea Partiers might be a broad-based social movement that share characteristics with previous political movements in American history is fascinating. Why does the Tea Party movement inspire such vehemence, founded on charges of racism, from the Left? Note that the fact that it is disproportionately white does not seem, by itself, to be a convincing explanation. Recall that the 1992 Perot movement, to which I compared the Tea Party movement, was even whiter, with one estimate putting the proportion of Perot supporters at 92% white. In fact, as this columnist acknowledges, in terms of race, gender and education, Tea Party members are almost indistinguishable from Perot’s followers.
And both movements share a common policy platform consisting of fiscally conservative principles of small government, lower taxes and less spending. Any yet there was much less, if any, intimation from the Left that the Perot movement was fueled by racism. What explains the difference in perspective toward the two movements?
One answer, of course, is that there is convincing evidence that Tea Partiers are racist. That theme gained support on the Left after a New York Times/CBS poll showed that 25% of Tea Party supporters thought Obama’s policies favored blacks, compared to 11% of adults more generally who shared this view. Moreover, 52% of Tea Partiers, but only 28% of all respondents, believe “In recent years, too much been made of the problems facing black people.”
For those on the Left, this is proof that the Tea Party movement is at least in part racially motivated. For Tea Partiers, however, the questions are not tapping into racial views – they are inciting policy views. They note, for example, that fully 73% of Tea Parties believe blacks and whites have an equal chance of getting ahead in society. Moreover, they point out that the Times poll also found that 65% of Tea Partiers believe Obama has treated blacks and white equally – not exactly evidence that the movement is dominated by racists. It is far more likely, Tea Party supporters suggest, that these questions are tapping views regarding affirmative action in schools, diversity in hiring, and other race-related public policies.
Uncovering racial motives from survey questions is tricky business. (Next time you are at a cocktail party, ask all the racists in the room to raise their hands. See what I mean?) So, without accepting or dismissing either interpretation, let me suggest four additional reasons, listed here in no particular order, that might explain the willingness of those on the Left to ascribe racist views toward Tea Partiers, but not to Perot’s followers, despite the two movements’ almost indistinguishable racial composition and economic policy views.
First, the Perot movement, like the Tea Party movement, directed its rage at incumbents. In 1992, however, the President was Republican, but Congress was controlled by Democrats. So the anti-incumbent fervor did not seem directed at any single party. In the same vein, Perot’s followers were not drawn primarily from one party, while the Tea Party is at least half Republican and its members share a distinctly conservative perspective. Perot, in contrast, drew heavily from moderates and liberals as well as conservatives. It is easier for the Left to brand a predominantly white movement as racially-motivated when most of its members don’t share the Left’s ideological views.
Second, the fracturing of media discourse into many more ideologically-oriented sources on both cable and the internet, has contributed to an echo-chamber effect where those on the Left are exposed to an increasingly smaller, and more critical, view of the Tea Party movement than was the case in 1992 with Perot’s followers. These often consist of the more “newsworthy” pictures from protest rallies showing the crazier element in the Tea Party movement. These images are cross-linked with like-minded sites, adding to the prevailing view that the Tea Partiers carry guns and crosses and spit on members of Congress.
Third, the Perot movement had a figurehead – Ross Perot – on which the media could focus its narrative. Indeed, one of the media frames in 1992 centered on whether Perot was crazy, rather than his followers! In contrast, it’s much harder for the media to develop a coherent and concise frame on a movement that seems so amorphous and unorganized and whose newsworthy events seem to be raucous rallies rather than statements of principle from the movement’s leader. This allows progressives like Dionne and others to step into the media vacuum and define the Tea Party movement themselves.
Finally, one should not underestimate the importance of having an African-American president. Simply put, many progressives sincerely believe that much of the criticism against Obama from the Right is rooted in racism, just as many on the Right sincerely believe that progressives are using charges of racism as a convenient excuse to deflect the Tea Party’s genuine substantive concerns. Tea party supporters argue that it is simply easier for those on the Left to dismiss the Tea Party as a fringe movement rather than accept that it in fact derives its support mostly from those who are disenchanted with Obama’s and the Democratically-controlled Congress’ policies.
Unlike critics on the Left (and their critics on the Right) I don’t pretend to know the motivations of the Tea Party movement. And, lacking access to the sampling procedures underlying many of these polls, I am more hesitant than others to make blanket generalizations regarding the Tea Party based on a single set of poll questions. I’ll leave it to others to cherry pick those results that fit their ideological predispositions.
Instead, I want to suggest that trying to uncover the Tea Party’s motivations is not a very useful exercise. What we really want to know is whether Dionne and other progressives are right in asserting that the group will not have an impact in 2010. After looking at the polling data as a whole, I don’t believe he is – the Tea Party is a broad movement rivaling the Perot movement in strength and which is motivated by a very strong anti-incumbent fervor rooted in concerns about government spending and the deficit – the same issues on which Perot campaigned and won roughly one in five votes cast in the 1992 presidential election. Efforts to paint Tea Partiers as a marginal group composed of bible-thumpers, racists and denture-wearing geriatrics hoping to turn back the clock to the “good old days” are not very helpful to Democrats if it leads them to dismiss voters’ substantive concerns. Racist or not, the Tea Party movement is composed disproportionately of affluent, well educated white males – precisely the attributes of individuals who are most likely to vote in any election. In the absence of economic improvement, this bloc of strongly motivated voters, ranging in size from 15% to 25% of likely voters, may contribute to an electoral tidal wave in November’s midterms that could wash away the Democratic majority. An astounding 94% of the Tea Partiers surveyed in the NY Times poll believed it is time for new people in government (compared to 78% of all adults who believe this.) Twenty-eight percent believe Congress is primarily to blame for the current state of the economy, and 34% believe it is responsible for the budget deficit, making Congress, even more than Obama or Bush, the primary source of the Tea Partiers’ ire. At a minimum, this suggests the movement has the potential to swing a significant number of seats away from the Democrat Party, potentially making the difference between a Republican or Democrat-controlled House and/or Senate come November.
It is still too early to make accurate predictions regarding the 2010 midterms, of course. But I think progressives do themselves a disservice if they dismiss the potential impact of the Tea Party movement.