Tea Party, Who are you, Really?
When the Tea Party burst on to the political scene in the US, we heard a lot about the mixed demographic population of the group. The Tea Party presented itself as a melting pot of angry Americans: disaffected Democrats and independents fed up with big government overreach joined libertarians and moderate Republicans who all decided to put small government and a decrease in spending as the highest priority. The issue at hand was economics, not social issues. The Tea Partiers were not political Americans but ‘regular folks’ who had just had it up to here. There were disparate groups and in-fighting due the local differences that arise throughout the US, but that was to be expected with any big-tent group. And liberals who painted a bloc picture of the Tea Party undersold its diversity and impact.
I never really bought that portrait, lovely as it might seem. The Tea Party always seemed to me a group of fairly staunch Republicans who wanted to make hay over small government in order to push for social conservative goals, like keeping Gay Marriage illegal, and furthering the cause of pushing religion in to government, and doing anything no matter what to never raise taxes. Maybe a touch of racism to boot.
Ezra Klein, the smartest wonk in the room, has a piece today that gets at the heart of TRC’s continued nervousness about the Tea Party. Klein reports on a study that interviewed a “nationally representative sample of 3,000 Americans” in 2006. Those same folks were interviewed this past summer, and ”as a result,” they explain, “we can look at what people told us, long before there was a Tea Party, to predict who would become a Tea Party supporter five years later.”
So who became the Tea Party? Some highlights:
- The Tea Party’s supporters today were highly partisan Republicans long before the Tea Party was born… In fact, past Republican affiliation is the single strongest predictor of Tea Party support today.
- The Tea Party is not a creature of the Great Recession…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.
- 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.
- 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…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.
A study like this may serve nothing but anecdotal evidence that is easy to brush aside. These are just interviews, after all. But they are interviews with quote rank and file Tea Party members, or put another way, voters. And as Klein points out, the above list of traits are not very popular in the general population as whole. Yes, Americans do want a smaller government (maybe) and a smaller deficit. But they do not want to see more religion brought into governance and they do not want to see deficit reduction only through cuts and never through tax increases.
And for these reasons, I continue to downplay the potential electability of a Tea Party candidate for US President. At the end of the day, when I do my politics round-up, I read the things that Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry say, out loud and on-camera, and I always am led to the same conclusion: S/he could never be elected president.
I comfort myself with the ‘conventional wisdom’ that Glenn Greenwald wrote about in Salon the other day, that the two party system by necessity draws out the middle-ground, status-quo candidates. That worrying this far out about some extremist candidate for President is not worth the sweat.
But that reassurance (or for Greenwald, terrible reality) might also mask the potential calamity of a true Tea Party President finding himself or herself in the oval office. After all, when the candidates are whittled down by the primary process, who will be the John McCain left standing?
Still, the Tea Party could never elect a president, right?