Tea Parties, Explained

by Jonah Goldberg

Wow, this sounds underwhelming. From a press release from the American Sociological Association:

Study Reveals Cultural Characteristics of the Tea Party Movement

LAS VEGAS — American voters sympathetic to the Tea Party movement reflect four primary cultural and political beliefs more than other voters do: authoritarianism, libertarianism, fear of change, and negative attitudes toward immigrants and immigration, according to new research to be presented at the 106th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association.

“Our findings show that the Tea Party movement can best be understood as a new cultural expression of late 20th century conservatism,” said Andrew J. Perrin, an associate professor of sociology in the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s College of Arts and Sciences, and lead author of the study, “Cultures of the Tea Party.”

Findings are based on two telephone polls of registered voters in North Carolina and Tennessee (conducted May 30-June 3, 2010 and Sept. 29-Oct. 3, 2010), and a set of interviews and observations at a Tea Party movement rally in Washington, N.C. Nearly half of poll respondents (46 percent) felt favorably toward the Tea Party movement.

Researchers found that respondents who felt positively toward the Tea Party movement held the following primary cultural and political dispositions more often than other voters did:

•    Authoritarianism: respondents believe that obedience by children is more important than creativity, and that deference to authority is an important value.

•    Libertarianism: respondents believe there should not be regulations or limitations on expressions such as clothing, television shows, and musical lyrics.

•    Fear of change/ontological insecurity: respondents sense that things are changing too fast or too much.

•    Nativism: respondents hold negative attitudes toward immigrants and immigration.

I’ll get a hold of the paper. And, in fairness, press releases of academic papers often distort the actual studies. But just a few quick observations about the above. So, authoritarianism has been defined down to believing that deference to authority is an important value and that kids should be “obedient”? And how does this reconcile itself with the “libertarianism” in the next bullet point? Meanwhile, these opponents of any regulations or limitations on clothing, TV, and musical lyrics (what an odd collection of benchmarks) fear change or believe that things are changing too fast or too much. Amazing how a movement dedicated to blocking America’s headlong descent into insolvency thinks things are changing too fast or too much. And does anyone else suspect that the study’s treatment of “nativism” is just a bit loaded? Oh, one last thing, why is a study that purports to describe a national movement focused entirely on a sample drawn from two southern states?

I have little disagreement with the general proposition that the tea parties are a new expression of 20th-century conservatism. But I have little confidence in how academics treat conservatism.

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