But in fact the Tea Party is increasingly swimming against the tide of public opinion: among most Americans, even before the furor over the debt limit, its brand was becoming toxic. To embrace the Tea Party carries great political risk for Republicans, but perhaps not for the reason you might think.
Polls show that disapproval of the Tea Party is climbing. In April 2010, a New York Times/CBS News survey found that 18 percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of it, 21 percent had a favorable opinion and 46 percent had not heard enough. Now, 14 months later, Tea Party supporters have slipped to 20 percent, while their opponents have more than doubled, to 40 percent.
Of course, politicians of all stripes are not faring well among the public these days. But in data we have recently collected, the Tea Party ranks lower than any of the 23 other groups we asked about — lower than both Republicans and Democrats. It is even less popular than much maligned groups like “atheists” and “Muslims.” Interestingly, one group that approaches it in unpopularity is the Christian Right.Once more political science shows itself to be the master social science. We mock you!
The masses may be asses. As individuals they are often duped, hoodwinked, and led astray. But perhaps, just maybe, the wisdom of American democracy is that in the aggregate, and over time, the people can more or less get it right.
I smiled today when I read the NY Times' column "Crashing the Tea Party" by esteemed political scientists David Campbell and Robert Putnam. I was happy because I am really fond of their work and hold both of them in the very highest of regard. They are truly giants in the field. I also like being proven correct as my most recent essays on the Tea Party brigand John Birch highwaymen were supported by Putnam and Campbell's rigorous empirical work.
[These are the moments that tempt me to come out of the shadows and break kayfabe as getting in on the conversation as the "real" Chauncey DeVega would be great fun. But for now, I have to work from the shadows. Alas.]
Thinking and right minded black and brown folks, and politically in tune white folks and others, have been all over the Tea Party since their emergence some years ago. As is our habit, black Americans were once again leading from the front and at the forward edge of public opinion.
The way that Black folks have long called out the threat posed by the Tea Party's brand of Right-wing populism and racial resentment, and how others belatedly followed, is par for our role in American society. It can be exhausting and comes with little reward, but we all have our special burdens and role to play in the chorus that is American democracy.
Putnam and Campbell score a range of body blows and head shots to the Tea Party GOP corpus that are worth higlighting.
Our analysis casts doubt on the Tea Party’s “origin story.” Early on, Tea Partiers were often described as nonpartisan political neophytes. Actually, the Tea Party’s supporters today were highly partisan Republicans long before the Tea Party was born, and were more likely than others to have contacted government officials. In fact, past Republican affiliation is the single strongest predictor of Tea Party support today.
What’s more, contrary to some accounts, the Tea Party is not a creature of the Great Recession. Many Americans have suffered in the last four years, but they are no more likely than anyone else to support the Tea Party. And while the public image of the Tea Party focuses on a desire to shrink government, concern over big government is hardly the only or even the most important predictor of Tea Party support among voters.
So what do Tea Partiers have in common? They are overwhelmingly white, but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do.The Right's lie of a causal narrative about the Tea Party is exposed. We knew they were Republicans on steroids. The Tea Party is also an AstroTurf organization. Students of race and politics also understand the deep role that racism plays in the policies and strategies of the contemporary GOP.
In all, the tea baggers are politically tuned in, but likely only to highly partisan sources, and revel in their roles as the foot soldier jihadis for the New Right.
More important, they were disproportionately social conservatives in 2006 — opposing abortion, for example — and still are today. Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics. And Tea Partiers continue to hold these views: they seek “deeply religious” elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates. The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government.Theocracy watch. The naked embrace of theocracy by Perry and Bachmann is chilling. The media are still playing softball with them--but the idea that Christian Dominionists could be at the top of a mainstream political ticket speaks to 1) the deep divides in this country socially and politically about what good government embodies and the Constitution allows; and 2) how as a nation in decline and crisis, the fringe can become mainstream and thus insert themselves into a broken democratic process as a legitimate option and alternative.
To beat a tired drum, if theocracy and fascism come to America it will be through the bottom up and led by Right-wing "Christian patriots" such as Bachmann, Palin, and company. Be weary and cautious.
Yet it is precisely this infusion of religion into politics that most Americans increasingly oppose. While over the last five years Americans have become slightly more conservative economically, they have swung even further in opposition to mingling religion and politics. It thus makes sense that the Tea Party ranks alongside the Christian Right in unpopularity.
On everything but the size of government, Tea Party supporters are increasingly out of step with most Americans, even many Republicans. Indeed, at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, today’s Tea Party parallels the anti-Vietnam War movement which rallied behind George S. McGovern in 1972.
The McGovernite activists brought energy, but also stridency, to the Democratic Party — repelling moderate voters and damaging the Democratic brand for a generation. By embracing the Tea Party, Republicans risk repeating history.I hope so.
But thinking more broadly, there is an effect in social psychology where people generalize from their own positions and cohort to what they intuit to be the opinions of larger groups of people. The Tea Party GOPers believe that they are the "real voice" of "real America"; the tea baggers also assume that they are the silent majority and speak for the mass public.
The Right-wing will respond to Campbell and Putnam's work with the usual mix of Conservative victimology and anti-intellectual zeal. And if Frances Fox Piven's experience is a guideline, both should maybe get some extra security and start screening their calls and emails.
How do you think they will spin this newest data on the Tea Party's role as a faction and obstructionist outlier in American politics and public life? Will it be more of the "lamestream media" and "liberal academics" are "victimizing" us meme? Or will they try something new?