The Relative Comment

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Tea Party, Who are you, Really?

with 5 comments

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?


Written by Christopher ZF

August 17, 2011 at 15:35

5 Responses

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  1. The two-party system draws out the middle-ground (or centrist) candidate, but only in a positive political era. In times of political and economic turmoil, the voters often go to an extreme. It depends whose demagogy is more effective, the liberals or the conservatives.

    Exhibit A: the 2008 election. There was NO reason Obama should have been elected president. He was totally unqualified to run a country. But Obama’s marketing people played McCain off as the next Bush, and so even though McCain’s views were more middle ground than Obama’s, he lost.


    August 17, 2011 at 16:30

  2. Welcome, truelibertarian.

    There’s much to unpack in your comment, but a common argument that I always find worth refuting is the idea that somehow Barack Obama the candidate was outside the political mainstream.

    It’s easy to look back and confuse the political maelstrom that Obama’s candidacy created, and the up-swell of support that resulted, and the eventual let-down many of those supporters felt when Obama’s presidency was underway, and think: he was outside the mainstream of his party, and made radical claims and promises that put him somewhere on the outskirts of American political ideology.

    In fact, Obama the Candidate was entirely a mainstream Liberal candidate (as was Hillary Clinton, actually). As a candidate he was capable of creating a manic air of devotion among his supporters, but that doesn’t change the fact that Change We Can Believe In, even during the 2008 campaign, meant: Bridging the Parties and bringing America together.
    People may have been hearing something else when they heard him talk about Hope and Change, but that shouldn’t hide the fact that his character as a candidate was, well, middle-Left. And his presidency has been almost ridiculously devoted to the idea that President Obama should stay the middle, and bring people together, rather than fight tooth-and-nail for his ideological base.

    McCain was the same. Despite the run of candidates who were far ahead of him in the early campaign, it was McCain who represented a middle-Right and thus eventually floated to the top and won the nomination. The dynamic that has been curious to this political climate is that, if Obama is a committed negotiator (which, clearly, he is) and the current GOP is a committed line-in-the-sand-holder (which as of now they are), will that allow the middle for the 2012 campaign to shift significantly to the Right? Thus, what constitutes a “mainstream” conservative will have been shifted far enough for someone like Rick Perry to win the nomination. I don’t actually think this will happen.

    But I don’t think that it is fair to say that Candidate Barack Obama represented political ideology further out of the Middle than Candidate John McCain.


    August 17, 2011 at 17:12

    • He espoused a very leftist approach to welfare and other such issues. Economically, he’s straight-up liberal, Keynesian economics is his bag, as opposed to the Austrian economics (i.e. Hayek) that the conservatives support.

      And after Hoover, FDR was elected. Hoover was pretty conservative, FDR VERY liberal. After the people saw that during Hoover’s presidency, the Depression occurred, they went to the exact opposite side.


      August 17, 2011 at 18:46

      • President Obama is not VERY liberal on welfare. He holds a fairly standard Democratic position on the issue. Well inside the tenants of political ideology of his party, i.e. mainstream (as both parties, for the most part, are). He is, as you say, a straight-up liberal, which is my argument. For the most part, Obama is well within the staus-quo of the Democratic party, but holds a political philosophy of compromise rather than hold-the-line at all costs.

        The same could be said about Candidate McCain by liberals: he held a very right-wing approach to immigration. Though I think his position on immigration was terrible, it was not an extremist position. It was a position that represented the basic ideology of the Republican Party.

        And, FDR, well, he was so far outside the mainstream that he only managed to win 4 presidential elections.


        August 17, 2011 at 19:05

  3. He won because the economy improved. There’s a lot of debate whether it was that his plan actually worked or because of the war, but it did. The liberal policy seems a lot friendlier to the workers, even though some of what he did actually compounded the issue.

    And McCain was a lot more bipartisan than Obama.


    August 17, 2011 at 20:07

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