Misunderestimating the Tea Party

Independent and moderate US voters do share the Tea Party’s concern about the spiralling national debt, stagnant employment and collapsing currency.

Just after the Presidential election of 1972 Pauline Kael, a critic for the New Yorker, is reputed to have said “I can’t believe that Richard Nixon won. I don’t know anyone who voted for him”. Given that Nixon had just won by a 23% margin and 18 million clear votes, the widest margin in the history of presidential elections, you have to wonder who Kael had been talking to.

The success of the Tea Party movement in a little over two years has been just as spectacular as Nixon’s. They have energised a Republican party which was moribund in 2008 and helped them take control of the House, bring the Senate near balance, and sweep up governors mansions and seats in state legislatures across the country. Incredibly, the Republicans now have a good shot at winning back the White House in 2012.

And this success has been just as baffling for some as Tricky Dicky’s. Take Max Blumenthal, author of 2009’s ‘Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party’, for example. On openDemocracy in September last year he set out “to unravel the mix of driven personalities, feverish rhetoric, toxic hatreds, and flirtation with violence that fuel [the Tea Party] sub-culture’s insurgent activism”. Not surprisingly, having set out to find extremist nuts, he found them.

Blumenthal attended what he called one of the Tea Party’s “days of rage” in 2009. “While covering the rally”, he wrote,

“I witnessed sign after sign declaring Obama a greater danger to America’s security than al-Qaida; demonstrators held images that juxtaposed Obama’s face with images of evildoers from Hitler to Pol Pot to Bin Laden; others carried signs questioning Obama’s status as a United States citizen. ‘We can fight al-Qaida, we can’t kill Obama’, said an aging demonstrator. Another told me, ‘Obama is the biggest Nazi in the world’, pointing to placards he had fashioned depicting Obama and House of Representatives’ majority leader Nancy Pelosi in SS outfits. According to another activist, Obama's agenda was similar to Hitler’s: ‘Hitler took over the banking industry, did he not? And Hitler had his own personal secret service police. [The community-organising group] Acorn is an extension of that’”

The phrase “far right” appeared nine times in Blumenthal’s piece.

Blumenthal also found plenty of racism at the event claiming “The racial subtext was always transparent”. Indeed, to opponents it is an article of faith that the Tea Party is racist, 61% believing it motivates the movement according to the Washington Post.

The message of Blumenthal and others is clear; the Tea Party are a fringe bunch of psychotic, racist loons who want to turn America into a fascist state. The trouble for Blumenthal and other opponents is that this view isn’t actually true.

Let’s begin with race. The Tea Party lacks a central organisation, it is more an amorphous constellation of groups and individuals, some overlapping and some contradictory, and it is obvious that any collection of people that size will contain some weirdo’s. The Tea Party is no exception.  

However, one poll found that views on race “are not significant predictors of support for the Tea Party movement”. Contrary to Blumenthal’s Nuremburg Rally like experiences the Washington Post analysed Tea Party placards in October 2010 and found that “the vast majority of activists expressed narrow concerns about the government’s economic and spending policies and steered clear of the racially charged anti-Obama messages that have helped define some media coverage of such events”. 50% of placards at the rally showed a “limited government ethos” while just 5% reflected anger with President Obama directly and a tiny 1% questioned his citizenship. Emily Elkins, the UCLA graduate student who conducted the research, commented that “media coverage of tea party rallies over the past year have focused so heavily on the more controversial signs that it has contributed to the perception that such content dominates the tea party movement more than it actually does”.

So what does drive the Tea Party? The BBC’s US correspondent, Mark Mardell, has “spoken to many supporters of the Tea Party and been to lots of rallies” and found, agreeing with Elkins far more than Blumenthal, that “talk to people for more than a few minutes and fury tends to dissolve into concern, worry about the economic direction of the country, worry about the size of the government and the level of taxation”. The ABC poll quoted earlier found

“Tea Party supporters broadly agree on motivations for backing the movement – economic concern (cited by 83 percent), distrust of government (79 percent) and opposition to President Obama and the Democrats (72 percent). Many fewer supporters, but still 39 percent, cite dissatisfaction with the Republican Party as a reason for favoring the Tea Party.

At the same time, the movement’s supporters broadly reject the suggestion of racial prejudice against Obama. Eighty-seven percent of Tea Party backers say this is not a reason people support it. (One in 10 say it is)”

And far from being the extremist psychotics of Blumenthal’s fevered imagination the Tea Party are in tune with most Americans here. A recent Gallup poll found that 71% of Americans worry about the economy “a great deal”. A CNBC poll found just 14% of Americans believed that the economic policies of the Democratic Congress and Obama administration had helped them. Rasmussen found that 52% of Americans said their own views were closer to those of Tea Party heroine Sarah Palin than President Obama and that 61% supported repeal of Obamacare. And on the size of government a CNN poll showed that 56% of Americans thought that the government is “so large and powerful that it poses an immediate threat to rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens”.

Despite what people like Mr Blumenthal might like to believe the Tea Party articulate views much more commonly held than he thinks, views which are much more commonly held than his. This is why the Tea Party has been so successful. And as long as people like Mr Blumenthal continue to mischaracterise it the Tea Party will continue to be successful.

Democratic Party Chairman Tim Kaine went on CNN in September to predict “I think it's become very clear now...that the control of the Republican Party is in tea party candidates who do not speak for independent or moderate voters at all...We have a feeling that we’re going to do very, very well in closing that gap with independent voters between now and the second of November, because independents do not like what they see from this ascendant tea party and the Republican Party”. He said this two months before the Republicans best result since 1938.

It’s obvious why Kaine couldn’t see the train hurtling down the tracks towards him. He persisted with the same comfortable view many Tea Party opponents have, namely that people who hold views opposite to theirs must be a mere handful of extremists. Even though all the polling evidence was there Kaine, like, Pauline Kael back in 1972, wasn’t speaking to the right people. This led him to make his stupid prediction about “closing that gap with independent voters”. In fact independent voters chose Republican candidates over Democrats by a margin of 56% to 38% in November’s mid terms.

That is because, as we’ve seen, independent and moderate voters do share the Tea Party’s concern about the spiralling national debt, stagnant employment and collapsing currency. Furthermore, it’s a concern that is shared by rating agencies, the Chinese Central Bank and now President Obama himself

“Its the economy stupid” is one of the most famous aphorisms in politics. But until they ditch the slurs and engage with these issues the Tea Party’s opponents, to their detriment, will continue to “misunderestimate” them.

About the author

John Phelan is an economist , political activist and regular visitor to the United States who lives in east London. He blogs at Manchester Liberal