Wednesday, April 13, 2011

New research reveals what drives the Tea Party

In the current issue of the American Political Science Association’s Perspectives on Politics (Vol. 9, No. 1, March 2011), three researchers from Harvard (Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol and John Coggin) take a closer look at the Tea Party and its membership.  Some of their findings shed new light on this movement which has gained so much control over the Republican Party.  One key finding is that true Tea Party supporters, who represent only about 5% of the population, are driven by anger at young people, whom they consider to be slackers, and a xenophobic reaction to unauthorized immigrants coupled with an undercurrent of racism.

Willamson, et. al., begin their article with a review of some of the things we already know about people who identify with the Tea Party.  For example:
  •  Various polls show that only 20% to 25% of Americans consider themselves “supporters” of the Tea Party movement.  However only 20% of the self-identified “supporters” have ever actually attended a Tea Party event or donated money.  In short, only about 5% of Americans are active Tea Party supporters. 
  • About 30% of Americans say they have a favorable view of the Tea Party.  About 44% have an unfavorable view and the percentage of Americans with an unfavorable view appears to be increasing. 
  • Tea Party supporters tend to be male (55% to 60%), white (80% to 90%), and over 45 (70% to 75%).  They also tend to have higher than average incomes but that may be just a function of age. 
  • Most Tea Party supporters are Republicans or Independents who lean Republican (75%)
  • 43% have worked in a previous political campaign.

The Tea Party has been financed largely by a few very Conservative and very rich businessmen, particular the Koch brothers, sons of Fred Koch, a founding member of the John Birch Society, who are primarily interested in eliminating government regulation of business in favor of true free-market capitalism.

Fox News, which has explicitly been involved in mobilizing support for the Tea Party, is the primary source of news for Tea Party members but its influence goes far beyond journalism.  The Harvard researchers say that Fox News has been a “national social movement organization” when it comes to the Tea Party.  They explain: “For a scattered set of people who might feel isolated or marginalized…a resourceful national organization can help to provide ‘an infrastructure for collective action’ by promoting ‘the diffusion of collective identities’ and fostering at least a minimal degree of solidarity and integration.”  In short, the Tea Party probably would not have emerged or if it did would not have achieved what it has achieved without the explicit help of Fox News as a organizing force.

Of course, most of this we all knew.  However, the Harvard researchers probed deeper.  They surveyed members of the Greater Boston Tea Party who are demographically and otherwise comparable to Tea Party members nationwide.  Here we get some additional insight concerning what motivates Tea Party supporters.

As expected most of the Boston Tea Party members watch Fox News.  In fact, say the Harvard researchers, “at Tea Party meetings Fox News stories are a common currency; activists share stories reported on the network and quote the opinions of Fox News commentators.  Fox News personality Glenn Beck is an especially frequent source of political opinion and historical perspective.”  In short, Fox News has a lot to do with shaping and justifying the opinions of Tea Party supporters.

It is common knowledge that a main tenant of the Tea Party philosophy is opposition to government spending.  Ironically, most Tea Party supporters are either the recipients of government spending through Social Security and/or Medicare or have members of their families that receive such government support.  The Harvard researchers note that Tea Party supporters are not opposed to government entitlement programs from which they personally benefit such as Social Security and Medicare.  They are opposed to Americans who are “not deserving” receiving government assistance.

Tea Partiers distinguish between “workers” and “people who don’t work.”  Workers, like themselves, deserve all they can get.  People who don’t work don’t deserve government support or assistance.  It’s that simple.  In short, Tea Party supporters are angry at what they perceive as a redistribution, or threat of future redistribution, from themselves, the deserving, to others who are undeserving. 

The Harvard researchers note that the distinction Tea Partiers make between deserving workers and non-deserving non-workers has little to do with whether or not someone holds a job.  In fact, a third of Tea Party supporters are unemployed or retirees. 

Tea Partiers are angry at what they perceive to be non-working, non-productive, free-loaders.  Who are these people?  Two groups emerge in the stories Tea Partiers tell about the undeserving/ non-workers: (1) young people, and (2) unauthorized immigrants. 

Anger toward the young is in part generational.  The older Tea Party supporters view the youth of American as slackers.  The Harvard researchers quote one Tea Party supporter as saying, “My grandson, he’s fourteen and he asked me: ‘Why should I work, why can’t I just get free money.”  Tea Party supporters see themselves as industrious, hard-workers who made their way through life on the strength of their own hands and determination to succeed.  They are disgusted with the young people who they believe just want everything to be given to them.  As I said, Tea Party supporter anger toward the young is largely an expression of generational conflict.  Chances are the parents and grandparents of the Tea Party supporters felt the same way about their children and grandchildren.

The anger toward illegal immigrants is different.  Surprisingly, the Tea Party supporters aren’t opposed to unauthorized immigrants because they seem them as a job threat.  The Harvard researcher say, “Most Tea Party activists couch their opposition to unauthorized immigration in terms of immigrants receiving undue government support, a concern that bleeds into a broader concern about representation.”  Tea Party supporters fear that illegal immigrants will somehow gain citizenship and then will either take over the government or be a pivotal voting block which would “allow the Obama administration to continue to ignore the interests of current American citizens.”  This xenophobic reaction to immigrants has a racist component.  While Tea Party supporters deny that they are racists, at least one study has found that “support for the Tea Party remains a valid predictor of racial resentment, even after accounting for ideology and partisanship.  For example, Tea Party supporters are more likely than other Americans to agree with the statement, “If blacks would try harder they could be just as well off as whites.”

Bottom line:  Tea Party supporters are largely angry, old, closet-racist, white men who view their children and grand children as slackers and who fear the impact the growing immigrant, largely Hispanic, population will have on American society. Tea Party supporters are nostalgic for a romanticized Ronald Reagan-Walt Disney type-vision of the America of their youth which they fear is being destroyed by undeserving young slackers and illegal immigrants.  Tea Party supporters aren't so much anti-government or anti-entitlement programs as they are anti-change.

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