The Agenda

The Schmee Party Schmovement

David Campbell and Robert Putnam, two political scientists who’ve been collaborating on a comprehensive survey of the religious beliefs of Americans, have published an attention-grabbing op-ed that, rest assured, will make the rounds for days to come:


[T]he Tea Party is increasingly swimming against the tide of public opinion: among most Americans, even before the furor over the debt limit, its brand was becoming toxic. To embrace the Tea Party carries great political risk for Republicans, but perhaps not for the reason you might think.

Polls show that disapproval of the Tea Party is climbing. In April 2010, a New York Times/CBS News survey found that 18 percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of it, 21 percent had a favorable opinion and 46 percent had not heard enough. Now, 14 months later, Tea Party supporters have slipped to 20 percent, while their opponents have more than doubled, to 40 percent.

Of course, politicians of all stripes are not faring well among the public these days. But in data we have recently collected, the Tea Party ranks lower than any of the 23 other groups we asked about — lower than both Republicans and Democrats. It is even less popular than much maligned groups like “atheists” and “Muslims.” Interestingly, one group that approaches it in unpopularity is the Christian Right.

I can also hear the cheers and see the fist-pumping enthusiasm of left-of-center reader. It helps to keep reading.

The strange thing is that over the last five years, Americans have moved in an economically conservative direction: they are more likely to favor smaller government, to oppose redistribution of income and to favor private charities over government to aid the poor. While none of these opinions are held by a majority of Americans, the trends would seem to favor the Tea Party. So why are its negatives so high? To find out, we need to examine what kinds of people actually support it.

That is a strange thing. And it suggests that while the Tea Party “brand” has suffered, conservatives have been persuading the persuadable. The authors make further observations on who does and does not identify with the Tea Party movement:


Our analysis casts doubt on the Tea Party’s “origin story.” Early on, Tea Partiers were often described as nonpartisan political neophytes. Actually, the Tea Party’s supporters today were highly partisan Republicans long before the Tea Party was born, and were more likely than others to have contacted government officials. In fact, past Republican affiliation is the single strongest predictor of Tea Party support today.

What’s more, contrary to some accounts, the Tea Party is not a creature of the Great Recession. Many Americans have suffered in the last four years, but they are no more likely than anyone else to support the Tea Party. 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 do Tea Partiers have in common? 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.

More important, 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.

I’d love to see the survey questions and results that led Campbell and Putnam to conclude that Tea Partiers have “a low regard for immigrants and blacks.” 


This inclination among the Tea Party faithful to mix religion and politics explains their support for Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. Their appeal to Tea Partiers lies less in what they say about the budget or taxes, and more in their overt use of religious language and imagery, including Mrs. Bachmann’s lengthy prayers at campaign stops and Mr. Perry’s prayer rally in Houston.

Yet it is precisely this infusion of religion into politics that most Americans increasingly oppose. 

Allow me to advance a modest hypothesis: as the Tea Party movement has attracted intense opprobrium, voters have responded in a number of ways. Those who are susceptible to the harsh disapproval of mainstream voices, including many with economically conservative views, have chosen not to identify with it. Those on the right who have little regard the mainstream (a fuzzy term, I’ll happily acknowledge), and indeed who define their own political identity in explicit and defiant contrast to the mainstream, might be somewhat more inclined to identify with the Tea Party movement. 

Campbell and Putnam are presumably aware of the fact that there is a flourishing Christian counterculture in the United States, for whom the contempt of coastal elites, etc., is a badge of pride. It is hardly surprising that people who are a part of it would enthusiastically embrace the idea of a vigorously oppositional conservative politics.

One constructive reaction might be for conservatives to rally around a Schmee Party Schmovement, which would back low taxes, entitlement reform, and a smaller, more cost-effective federal government. Perhaps the unexciting Mitt Romney will be its candidate of choice. Judging by the findings Campbell and Putnam present, it seems that a Schmee Party Shmovement — not the Tea Party movement, I should stress — might achieve considerable political success.

If I were a non- or anti-conservative, I must say, I’d be far more concerned about this

The strange thing is that over the last five years, Americans have moved in an economically conservative direction: they are more likely to favor smaller government, to oppose redistribution of income and to favor private charities over government to aid the poor.

than I would be totally jazzed by the fact that a near-constant drumbeat of hostile coverage of the Tea Party movement has only yielded 40 percent disapproval. I get the strong impression that people have been firing on all cylinders, and I’d expect anti-Tea Party sentiment to be well above 40 percent by now. Roughly 4.7 million Americans belong to a teachers union, all of whom are over the age of 18. The United States has a population of roughly 313 million, and as of the 2010 Census, about 74.2 million Americans are under the age of 18. If we assume that members of teachers unions will be inclined towards hostility to something called the Tea Party movement, well, you have 2 percent of the voting-age population right there, not factoring in the number of over-18 U.S. residents who are undocumented immigrants and chronically disaffected non-voters. Assuming that other public employees have broadly similar views, and that public employees have spouses, relatives, and dependents, the numbers start to add up. Factor in cultural antagonism — i.e., a political faction dominated by white evangelicals will almost certainly, regardless of its political character, engender some suspicion from, say, secular voters, who represent a large and growing share of the electorate, and of the most influential component of the electorate. 

Basically, conservatives have and have always had an uphill climb. There’s nothing shocking here. 

Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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