The Tea Party: Racially or Economically Motivated?

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.

Picture1Now, 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.


  1. Hi Matthew,

    I’ve been reading your posts and lurking for a few months, and I appreciate the thoughtful discussion that takes place in the comments. Finally felt compelled to contribute. Here’s my take on your latest question.

    I’m generalizing here, but I’d like to suggest that the answer to your question isn’t one of economics OR racism, but rather a combination of economics AND racism. Sure, the Tea Party may be motivated by their concerns about rising deficits and increased government spending, but how are these concerns different from mainstream conservative boilerplate? You seem to suggest that the difference is a matter of degree, and that their concerns stem from the unique nature of the current economic climate.

    This hypothesis about the Tea Party being motivated by economic concerns may in fact be true, but I don’t think they tell the whole story. I’d like to revisit a comment on your earlier post from Martin which I think has the potential to illuminate the other motivations of the Tea Party movement. He wrote, “The premise that TP followers operate under is that the traditional American social order is in freefall.” Martin referred not just to the belief that the economy is in freefall, but to the movement’s belief that the entire “social order” is in freefall – an apt characterization. I think he’s right, since we hear so much from the Tea Party movement about “taking our country back.” When I hear these types of statements about “taking our country back,” I have to ask myself, take it back from whom? Are the Tea Partiers simply referring to the incumbent politicians in Washington, or are they referring to others as well?

    Why is it that the Tea Party followers believe, as Martin suggests, that the entire American social order is in freefall? And to what extent is the movement’s premise true in the first place? The answers to these questions will probably shed light on the motivations of the movement as a whole.

    Curious to hear what others think about this, particularly if others think Martin’s initial comment got it wrong.

    Also, not directly related: eager to hear your thoughts on this new Washington Post/ABC News poll that seems to show heavy GOP support for the Tea Party. Does it contradict your claim that “the Tea Party may not be affiliated with any particular party?”

  2. Nick,

    Great comment. I’m eager to hear how others respond to both yours and Martin’s latest posts. Let me respond to a couple of your points that were directed more to my previous posts. I’ve not yet read the latest WaPo poll you cite, but based on my read of much other polling data I don’t doubt that Republicans are in agreement with much of what the TP’ers believe. My suggestion that the Tea Party is not affiliated with any single party probably could have been stated more precisely but here is my point: the TP movement is just that – a social movement, one whose supporters disavow any intention of affiliating with a particular party (or in forming a third party), and who in fact repeatedly argue that they find plenty to blame with both parties. In this respect, they echo the sentiments of the Perot movement from ’92. Nonetheless, as I’ve noted repeatedly, the focus of their wrath is on the incumbents, and that means primarily the Democrats who control Congress and the Presidency (in contrast to ’92). That, combined with the TP’ers conservative ideology (which differs from the Perot supporters’ more moderate ideology), suggests that many Republicans will certainly find common cause with the TP’ers for practical reasons. On the other hand, depending on the survey and how one defines “support”, about 40-50% of the TP consists of individuals who profess no affiliation with the Republican Party. These are primarily independents with a smattering of Democrats. (We can debate whether independents are truly independent in another post). That’s the basis of my claim that this isn’t simply a Republican party movement under another name. Now, this may be a distinction without a difference when it comes to the midterms – in practical terms, TP’ers are going to vote against the Democrats in most races which suggests support for the non-Democrat, i.e., the Republican. (Although, as Crist found out, maybe not The Republican!)

    Your second point – that the anger fueling this movement transcends economic issues and instead is directed at the larger “social order” is provocative. That characterization fits with Martin’s argument and is consistent with previous social movements in American history that often consisted of people reacting to economic calamity by railing against the larger social order. Typically, however, that social order is often viewed as an economic-based one – whether it was the eastern elite who supported the creation of a national bank during the Jacksonian era, the railroad tycoons opposed by the prairie populists, or the economic royalists that were the target of FDR’s New Deal. It’s hard to separate out the opposition by TP’ers to deficit spending on bank bailouts from their opposition to bankers and big financial institutions more generally. Part of the problem in trying to evaluate this issue is that surveys don’t really address it. However, even if I accept that some of the TP movement is fueled by opposition to the “social order” I’m not sure if that indicates racism. Of course, I think everyone agrees that the TP movement may contain racists – the debate seems to center on how much of it is fueled by this sentiment. You seem to indicate that the anger is tied up with opposition to a broader social order, and that racism is an important element of this opposition – an interesting supposition. I’m not convinced, mainly because I don’t have data to address your suggestion. But I’d like to hear what others have to say.

  3. P.S. – I think Martin’s latest comment – which is recommended reading! – is appended to the comments section on the previous post.

  4. The world of blogging moves so quickly it sometimes overlooks matters of importance. To my mind arguments about racism divert us from the more vital discussion of the policies Tea Party supporters are angry about and those they would like to see put into effect.

    Dale Steinacker has given us useful clues on this and I think he deserves to be engaged on the issues he raises. For example he argues that Sara Palin’s death squad charge is effective because “denial of treatment is the main method of cost control” in health care, and he references the British system in this regard. I am baffled by this observation because denial of treatment is one of the practices of health insurance companies in this country that is banned under the recent healthcare law. I also don’t understand the relevance of the British system, which is government run, whereas our government not only is not “running” health care, it doesn’t even offer a government-run option to those who would like to have one.

    I certainly agree that the cap and trade system will raise the cost of just about everything, but isn’t that exactly the point? With world-wide population growth, longer life spans, and rapid economic growth in countries such as China, India, Brazil, and others, there is no doubt that energy costs are going to rise — they already are rising — and that those countries that develop more efficient consumption patterns, transportation networks, and manufacturing technologies will be in the best economic position to prosper despite higher energy these increased costs. Since cap and trade relies on free markets to promote these goods rather than attempting to mandate private choices by government fiat, it would seem to be a good example of a policy that TPs would support. Is this just another example of the all too human tendency to let those who come after us deal with problems we are not willing to tackle?

    As for lumping together illegal immigration and attempted acts of terrorism under the rubric of national security, it conflates two very different problems. The dangers of each, and the optimal response to each, are surely different unless we choose to adopt the closed society approach of the North Korean regime — a totally unacceptable solution.

  5. Hi Matt,

    What are your thoughts on whether the tea party movement will have a negative impact on the Republican Party’s prospects this fall? I don’t think you have reflected on this yet, and if so forgive me for not keeping up with your blog! With more and more conservative tea party candidates in the running for (or receiving) the Republican party nomination, will moderate Republican opponents run independent as Charlie Crist has done in Florida. Or conversely, will these tea party candidates break off from the Republican party and run independent if they do not get the nomination? Either way, is this split in the Republican party creating a better opportunity for the democrats, like Kendrick Meek, to win seats. Is this a trend that is occurring across the country? In how many scenarios, is this Republican schism possible? And, are there historical comparisons? We already saw in the special election in New York in November 2009 how tea party candidates split typical Republican support, with the actual Republican candidate dropping out of the race and endorsing the Democratic, which led to a Democratic victory.

  6. Nick,

    I’m not sure I can make a blanket generalization re: the tea party’s likely impact on Republican fortunes this fall. If there is an impact I suspect it will be felt more in the Republican primaries, in those cases where the moderate or incumbent Republican gets a Tea Party opponent. In some cases, as with Crist, that may generate a third party candidacy which could fracture the Republican vote and help Democrats in the general election. But I don’t see this happening with much frequency, particularly in House races. In the absence of a third-party candidate, however, my guess is that the Tea Party vote will default to the Republican candidate – Tea Partier or not – in the general election. The bigger impact, I think, will come from the intensity factor. Tea Partiers are angry, and they will vote. If they do it in large enough numbers, the incumbents/Democrats will take a bigger than typical midterm hit.

  7. Bob – While waiting for Dale’s (and others’ I hope!) response to your thoughtful statement, let me briefly chime in. My guess is that Dale meant “rationing” when he discussed cost control – the idea that one way in which nations with public health systems control costs is by limiting or delaying access to services. I make no claim as to the accuracy of this charge, mind you, but simply want to clarify – pending Dale’s clarification! – what I think he was trying to say. As for your other comments – well stated, all. I hope they elicit a response….

  8. Hi Matt,

    Thanks very much for the pointer to the full NYT poll. I found it really interesting and read it differently.

    My basic take is this: The broad public outrage over the financial death spiral may well have been the initial impetus for the movement. It can explain Polemarchus’ question about timing, raised in response to your last post. But I’m personally cautious of concluding that the TP as a movement focused purely on the economy. Keep in mind that the first big wave of anti-Congressional activism was exclusively focused around Medicare reform … and there’s the continuing sidelight on gun rights. Looking ahead, anything can happen. I’m not prepared at all to discount this movement as one that will be exhausted by the 2010 midterms, or even an eventual Republican takeback of Congress. I think this movement is something new — effectively a product of Fox, and as a result, here to stay. Fox is netroots on steroids.

    I’d like to raise two issues.

    1) Do you concur, based on this poll, that the TP movement is closely aligned with more conservative Republican voters, and is not a cross-partisan movement like you may have suggested Perot’s was in 1992?

    Have another look at question 20:

    “Some people say the country needs a third political party…. Do you agree or disagree?”
    TEA PARTY: 40 YES / 52 NO
    ALL POLLED: 46 YES / 48 NO

    This response signals that the TP is relatively comfortable with the Republican establishment. Note also that the poll shows the TP are predominantly Americans who are comfortable calling themselves not just Republican, but “very” conservative. (See p.41.) Is this the answer to the issue you alluded to in your comment about “whether independent voters truly are independent”?

    2) Do you view this poll as indicative of strong media effects behind the mobilization of this movement?

    According to the poll (question 80), the TP to a large extent have a mistaken impression of how broadly popular the movement is. 84% of TPers think the members of the movement “reflect the views of most Americans,” whereas only 25% of all Americans view the movement that way. Now, while this response doesn’t necessarily mean much in isolation, let’s view it also in the context of one of the major themes of the contemporary American political scene. It’s a potential marker of media echo chamber effects, where the partisan voices in the media have begun to convince their viewers that they are more in tune with broader American views than they actually are. We have vaguely lamented the “echo chamber” effect – or polarizing effect — heretofore as having coarsened American political discourse. The poll actually offers a fair amount of evidence that this media echo chamber has strengthened and is now a full-blown Fox network-driven social movement.

    Nearly every relevant question in the poll implies that Fox network’s political advocacy is a fount of the TP’s political views. Indeed, it’s hard not to believe that there are plenty of people affiliated with the TP who would be proud to tell you their favorite TV network provides a steady diet of inspiration.

    Take a look at the results to poll questions 35-39. They ask about the favorability of particular public figures. It shows Glenn Beck of Fox is far better known than the “Ross Perot” of 2008 — Libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul. Only 17% say they “don’t know enough” about Glenn Beck to form an opinion of him, whereas 36% say the same of Ron Paul. That certainly indicates an attentive audience surrounding the network’s spokesmen. Even more remarkable, the Fox network’s Glenn Beck has the LOWEST negatives of all the Republican figures asked about in the TP poll (only 6% have formed a negative opinion of him). I have a hard time imagining numbers like that for nearly any other recent American TV commentator. (Bill Moyers anyone?)

    The poll indicates 47% of TP supporters — by a very wide margin this is the largest proportion of respondents — get their info about the movement from television. 63% say they primarily watch Fox for their political information. Further, 53% consider Glenn Beck’s show to be a news show. (See questions 86, 95 and 96. Did the pollsters even identify PBS as a network choice in the question? Nope. Sigh.)

    If Fox is the nerve center of the movement, the rhetorical platform of the TP can shift with the wind, and once people are mobilized, political activism won’t be constrained to any traditional ideological anchors. This presents a contrast to older thinking on “voter issue attention” predating Fox, by which I mean political communication theories that assumed a nonpartisan media, with issues relatively difficult to ignite in the media. Nowadays, Fox has made it much easier to permanently mobilize around any concatenation of policy positions.

    There’s a rival theory – that the TP marks the ascendancy of Libertarianism. But questions 57 and 59 cast doubt on it. It’s more likely that Libertarianism just doesn’t sit comfortably with TP activists, except insofar as they can seize on its tropes to flaunt their own patriotism. ONLY 1/3 of those with Tea Party allegiances say Medicare and Social Security are NOT worth the costs to taxpayers. ONLY 1/3 of them say that the government should NOT require insurance companies to cover Americans who have pre-existing conditions. My read of the poll is, again, that there is just an “elective affinity” between the movement and its adopted Libertarian rhetoric, rather than a consistent matter of conviction.

    I don’t know what if anything it portends that Gingrich is the most popular figure among the TP movement (see question 34), but the Republican insurgency of 2010 would really have to screw up badly for the TP to disperse or ratchet down the pressure on Democrats in Congress.

    I also think that for this movement to dissipate after 2010, Fox News would simply have to abruptly vanish from the scene. That’s not going to happen. Nor is David Brooks poised to launch his own Communitarian infotainment channel to lead the Republicans in a brainier direction. (Still, sure looks like there’s an opening here….)

  9. Bob Johnson,
    Apparently we differ on both political viewpoint and age. Admittedly, for younger people, there is, as yet, no public option. But, as a person very near Medicare age, my concerns are different. I will shortly be on a government insurance plan. There are provisions in both the stimulus bill and the health care bill to control Medicare costs through the denial of treatments.
    Rahm Emmanuel’s brother, Ezekiel, is a strong proponent of basing the amount spent on an individual on the value of the person’s life given their age, health, etc. As I understand it, there is a provision in the stimulus bill that sets up a cost control board which makes recommendations to Congress. Unless the Congress comes up with alternate changes of equal value, the board’s changes are instituted.
    The health care plan has provisions to penalize general practice physicians who give “too many” specialist referrals. I already use three or more specialists. This is likely to have a direct impact. The British example applies to those cases where the government works to limit costs by proscribing the use of certain drugs and equipment as a cost-saving measure. The results are not encouraging. It may not be a death panel but, at my age, it makes me think of the end of “Soylent Green”.

  10. Bob Johnson and Matthew,

    To continue my explanation of my previous post, let me expand on the issue of the inevitability of rising energy costs and the environmental movement.
    I do not agree with your assertion that energy costs must rise. The recent breakthrough in the use of “fracturing” has greatly increased the amount of natural gas available if we choose to use it. Unfortunately, Congressman Waxman is holding committee hearings looking for an “impact” to use as a reason to ban the practice. In the 1950’s every science fiction writer was dreaming of unlimited cheap energy from nuclear power. The limits on its use are political rather than technical. Senator Reid and President Obama have blocked the use of the extensively studied Nevada nuclear waste storage facility which continues to hamper the nuclear industry.
    It is a favorite conspiracy theory to argue that big business is blocking some kind of miraculous discovery to keep building what it currently builds. In reality, it is usually the government working on behalf of some special interest (which, in this case, includes the environmentalists) to make sure the status quo is unchanged.
    I would suggest that part of the economic anger of the Tea Party movement comes from a fear that the environmental bills will add to their costs and produce no real benefits, at least for them.
    I have written a longer article on my blog where I cover the fact that environmental regulation has very disparate impacts on people at different economic levels.

  11. Matthew,
    I think the key word that is missing in the conversation about the Tea Partiers is Aretha Franklin’s R-E-S-P-E-C-T. The incident with Gordon Brown calling a lifelong Labour voter a “bigoted woman” is an example of the attitude of too many politicians about the “working people” they claim to be supporting or protecting. I think Saul Alinsky, if he were still alive, would understand the issues and be able to explain it. I explain what I think would be Alinsky’s take in my blog entry on this subject.
    There are two theories about the role of representatives in our government. They should either echo the views of those they represent or do what they think best for the country even if their constituents disagree. If they do the latter, they should be willing and able to explain their actions and views to those they represent. What is unacceptable, in my view, is to assume that those who are represented are unable or unwilling to understand the real issues. That is the “philosopher king” concept which is completely unacceptable in our system. The average voter may tolerate that in good times on the assumption the results show that those in charge really know what they are doing. In difficult times, public trust disappears.
    For Polemarchus, I looked at Lilla’s article and I agree it is interesting. I think it is too optimistic for the Democrats. His comment that “As of 2009, only a quarter of Americans identified themselves as Republicans, the lowest figure since the post-Watergate years.” is already outdated. Those numbers have changed drastically in 2010.
    Also, listening to people like Michael Barone, Pat Caddell and Doug Shoen makes me think things are turning against the Democrats (and some Republicans) with a stunning rapidity and intensity.

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