April 18, 2010

No, They're Not Mainstream


Last Thursday was Tax Day, and with Tea Party outrage continuing to to be a significant story in most media, the New York Times and CBS News decided to get under the hood of the movement to see what makes it tick, releasing a National Survey of Tea Party Supporters.  It's interesting reading.

In general, Tea Party supporters are older, wealthier, and more educated than average; they are also religious, Republican, gun owners, and deeply conservative:


Alright so far, but as the report digs into an examination of Tea Party activists - defined for the survey's purposes as people who attend rallies and/or donate money to the cause (and who represent about 4% of the U.S. population) - things become a little disturbing.  As one might expect, among activists, certain trends are more pronounced:


Leaving aside for a moment their affinity for the execrable Beck and Palin, of late, the Tea Party has been trying to separate itself from its most extreme elements.  It is telling, however, that 1 in 4 supporters of the movement - and 1 in 3 activists - believe that violent action against the government is justified.  Relatively moderate elements of the Tea Parties might be unhappy about the perception that there is a connection between their movement and the revival of militias and acts of political violence in this country, but there is clearly a greater willingness toward physical, anti-government confrontation among their ranks than in the general population.

Also troubling is the fact that only a minority of Tea Party supporters acknowledges that President Obama was born in the United States - in other words, they subscribe to the idea that he is a foreigner illegally occupying the White House.  Worse stiil, there is the matter of the substance of many of their arguments against taxes in the United States - the supposed core beliefs of the movement - which simply don't match up with reality.  John Perr at Perrspectives has an excellent post that dissects this problem, and which he boils down to 10 Inconvenient Truths for Tax Day:
  1. Over 95% of Working Households Got Tax Cuts
  2. Only 2% of Tea Baggers Know Obama Cut Their Taxes
  3. ...and 52% of Tea Partiers Think Their Taxes are Fair
  4. ...and Think the Federal Tax Level is Over Double What It Is
  5. 1% of Families Earned 24% of All Income...
  6. ...and 57% of All Capital Income
  7. 400 Richest Taxpayers Saw Incomes Double, Tax Rates Halved
  8. Only 1 in 500 Families Pay the Estate Tax
  9. Corporate Taxes Have Plummeted as a Share of GDP
  10. The U.S. Loses $345 Billion a Year to Tax Evasion and Fraud

In fairness, the general populace also doesn't have a firm grasp on federal spending, with a recent poll from The Economist indicating a strong preference for cutting spending rather than raising taxes.  The problem with that?  Nothing in and of itself, but there is no consensus about what to cut, except in the case of foreign aid, which amounts to less than 1% of the federal budget.  Still, for a group as outraged as the Tea Partiers, it would seem that a stronger grasp of the facts around which it rallies might be expected.

So, where does that leave us?  To my mind, the New York Times/CBS News survey does indeed undermine blanket generalizations of the Tea Party movement as a bunch of drooling fools with anger management issues and poor spelling skills.  However, there are also a number of viewpoints captured by this data that clearly indicate thinking well outside the mainstream, and there is a vivid disconnection from hard facts in several key areas.

I think Andrew Sullivan expresses the proper perspective well in a post called Why I'm Passing On Tea:
And this is why, despite my own deep suspicion of big government, I remain unmoved by the tea-partiers. Their partisanship and cultural hostility to Obama are far more intense, it seems to me, than their genuine proposals to reduce spending and taxation. And this is largely because they have no genuine proposals to reduce spending and taxation. They seem very protective of Medicare and Social Security - and their older age bracket underlines this. They also seem primed for maximal neo-imperial reach, backing the nation-building efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, favoring war against Iran, etc. Only Ron Paul, peace be upon him, extends his big government critique to the military-industrial-ideological complex.

So they are truly not serious in policy terms, and it behooves the small government right to grapple with this honestly. They both support lower taxation and yet bemoan the fact that so many Americans do not pay any income tax. They want to cut spending on trivial matters while enabling the entitlement and defense behemoths to go on gobbling up Americans' wealth. And that lack of seriousness is complemented by a near-fanatical cultural alienation from the modern world.

In my view, this confluence of feelings can work in shifting the public mood, as seems to have happened. When there is no internal pushback against crafted FNC propaganda, and when the Democrats seem unable to craft any coherent political message below the presidential level, you do indeed create a self-perpetuating fantasy that can indeed rally and roil people. But the abstract slogans against government, the childish reduction of necessary trade-offs as an apocalyptic battle between freedom and slavery, and the silly ranting at all things Washington: these are not a political movement. They are cultural vents, wrapped up with some ugly Dixie-like strands.

When they propose cuts in Medicare, means-testing Social Security, a raising of the retirement age and a cut in defense spending, I'll take them seriously and wish them well.

Until then, I'll treat them with the condescending contempt they have thus far deserved.

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