Researchers build a different picture of the Tea Party

In the last week or so I’ve read several articles noting that Americans are turning against the Tea Party and that it is a really conservative movement.

Golldarnit, I’d have never guessed. Who’d have thought that a movement screaming about death panels, the president’s secret Kenyan birth and clearly socialist leanings, and the scourge that is America’s immigrant population would have grown directly out of the anti-black, anti-other roots of the Jim Crow era? Who could have imagined that the Tea Party cared about something other than America’s working people in its pledge to eviscerate the U.S. government and its social safety net? That it was the same old far right that has reared its head time after time in various packaging during periods of fear in American history?

Certainly not I. But I’m pleased that select corners of the American media have begun to set me straight.

The articles seem for the most part to have been prompted by the research of two professors, David Campbell and Robert Putnam, who published some of it in a New York Times opinion piece, “Crashing the Tea Party.” The men note that their research, conducted over five years on the political attitudes of a representative sample of some 3,000 Americans, preceded both the Tea Party and the Obama presidency and thus allowed them to track the Tea Party movement’s evolution. Their conclusion?

Contrary to some accounts, the Tea Party is not a creature of the Great Recession … 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 is then? Tea Partiers, they write, are both social conservatives who believe religion should play a role in politics and are overwhelmingly “white Republicans (with) a low regard for immigrants and blacks.”

In other words, except for the change of parties, they sound a lot like the old Dixiecrats who fought Civil Rights.

In Salon’s “Getting to Know the Tea Party,” Joan Walsh writes at some length about the research of Campbell and Putnam, the latter of whom you may recognize as the author of the much-acclaimed book Bowling Alone.

Noting that “it’s great to have the data,” Walsh then asks the obvious question: “Why was the media so quick to declare them [Tea Partiers] a vital new force in politics?”

Her answer seems to be that the unlimited resources of the Koch brothers, whose father served on the governing body of the far-right John Birch Society, and the political savvy of former Republican Rep. Dick Armey didn’t hurt. But she notes a third reason, one that arguably has been a significant force in wrenching both journalism and politics to the right in this country: Fox News.

She writes:

Most important was the role of Fox News, which did energetic publicity for the early Tea Party rallies. Richard Nixon’s media aide, Roger Ailes [now Fox president], finally figured out how to turn his supposed Silent Majority into a Noisy Minority. Glenn Beck founded one of the early groups, the 9/12 movement. The San Francisco Tea Party I attended in April 2009 was promoted by the local right-wing radio station KSFO, home of Rush Limbaugh, at one time Michael Savage, and a host of other righties like Melanie Morgan, who whipped the crowd into an anti-government frenzy that day.

Some columnists and pundits were quick to grab Campbell’s and Putnam’s research and suggest that the decline of Tea Party credibility beyond its death grip on the Republican Party could spell d-o-o-m for the GOP in the next election.

As Ezra Klein writes in his Washington Post blog: “The overt religiosity of Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry will give them a huge advantage in the GOP primary, but force them to say things and commit to policies that leave them at a huge disadvantage in a general election.”

I’m less confident of this. Yes, Campbell and Putnam found Tea Party support flat at about 20 percent of the public. And they found that those opposing it had doubled to twice that.But that still leaves 40 percent of Americans indecisive, clueless or both.

And the news media seem for the most part to have simply ignored the Campbell-Putnam research, even though some of its findings — such as the fact that Americans think less of the Tea Party as a group than they do of atheists or Muslims po — is rather surprising.

Yet on another day in which global stocks are crashing and in another month in which unemployment remains stuck above 9 percent nationally, there is no certainty that Americans won’t vote for anybody other than the president in power.

Surely Tea Party extremism already has gone a long way toward defining the American political dialogue, from Perry’s “the Fed is treasonous” remark this week to the Tea Party pandering of Mitt Romney, who probably wouldn’t hesitate to call on all Americans to wear three-corner hats daily if he thought it would help him get the nomination.

Given that the latest Gallup poll shows Barack Obama has dropped to a new low in the public’s estimation of his handling of the fiscal economy — only 26 percent believe he’s handled it well — it is not far-fetched that a Tea Party Republican will be leading, or dismantling, the government of the United States in just 17 months.

That’s not something to which I look forward.

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About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at www.jerrylanson.com. My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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