Crashing the Tea Party

A unique political study done by researchers at Harvard and Notre Dame that tracks the same 3,000 people and their political opinions over time reveals some new insights into the Tea Party movement — and strips away much of the political narrative that surrounds it.  The group was first interviewed in 2006, and then again in 2011.  The results are fascinating, let’s look at the key findings:

The Tea Party was never a nonpartisan movement made up of political novices who had just gotten fed up with politics — in fact, researchers found that the single best predictor of whether or not someone would be a member of the Tea Party was past affiliation and involvement in Republican politics.  As a group, they were more likely than the average to have contacted government officials back in 2006.

The Tea Party movement is overwhelmingly white and members have low opinions of immigrants and blacks.  True in 2006, and still true today, according to the study.  In fact, these opinions are more consistently held among Tea Partiers than the belief in shrinking government.

Religion is the driving force for many Tea Partiers.  The second biggest predictor of Tea Party membership (after being a Republican) is agreement with the notion that religion should play a prominent role in politics.  The Tea Partiers in this survey put increasing the role of religion in government ahead of fiscal issues like reducing taxes or cutting the deficit.

Tea Party ideology is increasingly out of step with the rest of America.  Out of 23 groups polled about in the study, the Tea Party receives the lowest approval ratings, lower than atheists and Muslims.  That is despite the fact that the entire survey group has moved to the right on economic issues.  In fact, the difference seems to lie in their strident beliefs on religion in politics and government — and area where the survey group (even non-Tea Party Republicans) has moved away from.

A Tea Party candidate for President, such as Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry, may be able to win the Republican primary but they are going to have a very difficult time winning the general election over a center-left President like Barack Obama.



9 Responses to “Crashing the Tea Party”

  1. I don’t know who these pollsters are talking to, what questions are being asked, or how the relevant terms were defined. But it’s clear these pollsters haven’t talked to any Tea Partiers I know. As the current chair of North Star Tea Party Patriots, I know a few. The “origin story” this NYT writer calls into question is accurate. In fact, if anything has retarded the Tea Party’s progress over its first couple years, it has been the fact we’re a bunch of neophytes who often stubbornly insist upon reinventing the wheel.

    The only conclusion in this op-ed (presented as objective fact) which I concur with is that there are some Tea Partiers who are religiously motivated social conservatives. But that is not the defining aspect of the movement. The Tea Party is about economic sanity, constitutional law, and individual rights. Within that framework, there is room for a range of views on social issues. And that range is present.

  2. Hi Walter, thanks for your comment. Certainly, not every member of a political movement is going to fit into a predetermined box. What this study does show, though, is a reliable person-to-person tracking of opinions over time — which is not typically how such polls are done — and ought to be a fairly valid representation of the tendencies that point towards Tea Party affiliation.

    My hope, though, is that you are correct and that your movement lives up to the “origin story” and does not allow itself to be co-opted by Republican and corporate influence. Both parties need tough, independent advocates keeping them honest. Tea Party voices would have been most welcome before January 20, 2009 — during the Medicare part D debate or one of the 7 debt ceiling votes during the Bush Administration or when two wars were started and conducted on the national credit card.

  3. There’s a lot of opportunity to poison the well in these kind of opinion polls. I would be very interested to see the actual questions and the pollsters methodology for identifying a Tea Partier. How did they quantify attitudes toward blacks and immigrants, for instance? How does one define a “low opinion” of someone? Did an expressed desire to see immigration laws enforced constitute a “low opinion of immigrants?” Or did they actually ask for some kind of favorability rating? How such things are qualified makes all the difference in the world.

    It should be evident at this point that the Tea Party is not interested in merely electing Republicans. The examples of Tea Party angst directed at Republican leadership since last year’s elections are prolific.

    I agree that the Tea Party coalesced later than it should have. I think what you saw in the second Bush term was apathy and disengagement which enabled the Democratic gains in 2006 and 2008. What folks realized was that we can’t afford to succumb to apathy. Republicans will no longer receive the benefit of any doubt.

    • Electing Republicans may not be the only thing the Tea Party is interested in, but it seems to be near the top of the list.

      What interests me about what I’ve seen lately out of the Tea Party is the appearance that this movement — which in large part gained steam behind opposition to bailouts of financial institutions and the auto companies — has now become a reliable ally of big business. Why is the Tea Party opposed to Dodd-Frank, for instance? Shouldn’t we take action to prevent what happened in 2008 from happening again? If corporations breach their public trust, shouldn’t they face additional scrutiny?

      • When I say I’m non-partisan, I mean that my principles define my activism rather a particular party. Partisanship, to my mind, is support of a party at all cost. For instance, Republicans tend to favor various forms of corporate welfare which are fundamentally no different than personal welfare. As someone who holds that government ought not subsidize anyone, I stand against all forms of welfare at the risk of alienating some Republicans. That said, of the two major parties, the Republicans tend to be more representative of my values and goals than the Democrats. So my political activism will tend to favor them. But there’s nothing which prevents a Democrat from representing my values, and I would support any who did.

        I am no more allied with big business than I am with anyone. My primary concern is individual rights. We should all be free to act upon our own judgment and face the consequences, whether profit or loss. Dodd/Frank, by increasing regulation of private commerce, is an incursion upon individual rights.

        What happened in 2008 was not due to a lack of regulation, but due to extensive government interference in the market. Reckless bets were made because government, in various forms, insured them.

        The government’s proper role includes responding to fraud. However, it ought not assume fraud where none has been evidenced or even alleged. Yet that’s precisely what regulation does. It initiates force on the presumption that wrongdoing would otherwise occur. If we simply allow actors to suffer the consequences of their own actions, the market regulates itself.

        • Your last sentence just isn’t true. We’ve seen that for thousands of years. Too many innocent people get hurt if we just leave people to their own devices and let the market on its own handle things. I would argue that a proper level of regulation is essential to liberty. Places that don’t have regulation don’t have freedom. Who do you go to enforce your contract in Somalia?

          Now, I’ll agree with you that the government — by buying off the perpetrators of what happened in 2008 — hasn’t set us on a path for a sustainable future. Any institution that is too big to fail is too big to exist.

      • I’m glad we have found a point of agreement. Your last sentiment is foundational to the Tea Party movement, assuming I’m understanding it correctly.

        On the former point, we have different perspectives. Unless there is force or fraud, there are no “innocent” parties in economic transactions. In nearly every case, each party is taking a leap of faith, trading perceived value for perceived value on the assumption that each party is walking away better off. Most of the time, that assumption is correct. Sometimes it’s not. On the rare occasion where fraud, breach of contact, or some other derivative of force occurs, it is certainly government’s role to step in and apply retaliatory force in a just manner. You’ll get no argument from the Tea Party there. However, the prolific regulation we see today is above and beyond that basic function of government. Much of it is informed by a misguided sense that bad things shouldn’t happen, and that one person’s misfortune entitles them to the property and labor of another.

        • Perhaps in an individual transaction, there are no innocent parties. But I would argue there were plenty of “innocent” people who were hurt by what happened on Wall Street and in the housing market in 2008. And part of the reason that occurred is because the government allowed things like securitization of mortgages to occur without any meaningful oversight or transparency requirements. People who played by the rules — the innocents — still lost a lot in that scenario through no fault of their own.

          No one is asserting that government should immunize people from all risk in the economy. But, corporations exist as a legal entity because we give them that right. They do create value and we provide them with benefits as a result — stockholders receive favorable taxation and legal protection. When we have systematic failures, like happened in 2008, regulation is required to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. The notion that we should just wait until something bad happens is akin to saying that the police should never be on patrol, rather they should all just wait at the police station until someone reports a crime.

      • That’s an intriguing analogy. Of course, when police patrol, they do so in public spaces and thoroughfares. They don’t (or at least shouldn’t) get to detain people or enter private premises without warrant or probable cause. To the extent regulation assumes actors are operating in bad faith, it is fundamentally no different than random police stops under the presumption of guilt.

        The problem in 2008 wasn’t that mortgages were securitized, but that the risk of those transactions was not fully bore by the parties engaged in them. What happened was entirely predictable, and indeed was predicted by those who saw the moral hazard. If government had not implicitly backed those transactions, its likely the vast majority of them would never have happened.

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