The Corner

The Many Tea Parties

I promised more thoughts on the new NYT/CBS News poll that reveals some interesting and at times counter-intuitive things about the 18 percent of Americans who align themselves with the “Tea Party.” So here they are:

On the one hand, tea-partiers tend to be Republican, white, male, married and middle-aged, which is consistent with — though just as potentially misleading as — a lot of polling I’ve seen on the topic. The demographics of this country are such that most broad, organized political movements are just going to wind up with a plurality of middle-class whites. And other polling on the topic suggests that female and black representation in the movement — 45 percent and 6 percent of the tea party, respectively — is substantial, if not quite up where it should be to in terms of population distribution. (It won’t surprise you that I think the question this suggests is not why there are so few African Americans in the tea party, but why so many tend to vote as a bloc with the Democrats). 

Nor is it surprising that tea partiers are somewhat more conservative than both self-identified Republicans and Democrats, and somewhat more likely than either to be disaffected with Washington, the Obama administration, and the direction of the country.

But our friends on the Left who imagine a movement of yokels and bumpkins might be surprised to learn that tea-partiers tend to be better educated than the general public, and they will be downright shocked to learn some of this:

Most describe the amount they paid in taxes this year as “fair.” Most send their children to public schools. A plurality do not think Sarah Palin is qualified to be president, and, despite their push for smaller government, they think that Social Security and Medicare are worth the cost to taxpayers. They actually are just as likely as Americans as a whole to have returned their census forms, despite some conservative leaders urging a boycott.

’Fair’ taxes? Broad support for the very entitlements that bloat government and drive up the debt? Indeed, I scratched my head a bit on reading this. But on reflection, I shouldn’t have. What it shows is merely that the tea party, like the American public at large, is temperamentally conservative more than they are ideologically so. Medicare and Social Security may be fiscal nooses, but they are also promises — covenants between the state and generations of Americans who have counted on the guarantee of a government-subsidized retirement as they’ve worked, saved, and planned for their futures. And honoring long-standing covenants is as conservative as it gets.

This being said, there are definitely some internal tensions, if not outright contradictions, in the attitudes of the poll’s respondents:

Asked what they are angry about, Tea Party supporters offered three main concerns: the recent health care overhaul, government spending and a feeling that their opinions are not represented in Washington.

“The only way they will stop the spending is to have a revolt on their hands,” Elwin Thrasher, a 66-year-old semiretired lawyer in Florida, said in an interview after the poll. “I’m sick and tired of them wasting money and doing what our founders never intended to be done with the federal government.”

Now, perhaps, Mr. Thrasher wasn’t one of the respondents who thought his taxes were “fair” or gave three cheers to big entitlements, but the presence of both his impulse and its contrary among those surveyed is in itself telling.

One of the things it tells me is that nobody ever went broke underestimating people’s capacity for self-contradiction. Another — and by far more important — thing it tells me is that there appears to be not one but many tea parties.

We knew the tea party movement was grassroots and decentralized, but perhaps we haven’t fully realized the extent to which, in its nascence, the very idea of the tea party is plural. In other words, the “tea party” that poll respondents identify with is what the philosopher Walter Bryce Gallie called “an essentially contested concept,” or a term that can’t be employed without begging all sorts of questions about what that term means. We have a pretty solid grasp of what it means about a person that he or she identifies as a Republican or a Democrat. But the tea party is too young, too diffuse, too morally and politically charged in the minds of both supporters and detractors, for us to be able to say at this point that it means any one thing. 

Still, it seems fair to say that, at its core, the tea party is unified by a legitimate worry that government has grown too big, too intrusive, too expensive, and too unresponsive to the concerns of ordinary Americans. And though that worry has yet to (and perhaps never will) cohere into a single platform or set of policy prescriptions, the fact that the tea partiers are the single most engaged and vocal force in American politics today should, as I’ve suggested before, give conservatives and proponents of limited government hope.


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