Don't Let Me Stop You

What the heck, you'll do what you want anyway.

Who Are These Tea Partiers?

Posted by Dan Draney on April 1, 2010

Fellow Nebraska blogger, Uncle Wiggily, had a post this week that caught my attention, entitled The enemy of my enemy is sometimes my enemy too. He starts by describing the original Boston Tea Party in context and then turns to the current Tea Party Movement:

I laid that micro-lesson in history on you as prelude to this declaration – in one rabbit’s opinion, today’s so-called Tea Parties are nothing like, and bear no meaningful relationship to, that honored, even sacred, juncture in American history that took place in Boston so long ago. To compare today’s boisterous chatauqua-cum-picnic gatherings (complete, of course, with the requisite goofy hats, shirts and hand-painted signs) to the coup d’éclat of those early revolutionaries whose courageous actions jeopardized their careers, reputations, and even their lives, is to dishonor those who birthed this republic.

Additionally, I have never liked what I believe to be the symbological disconnect between current political revelers and those old colonial patriots. Adams, and many others, were struggling against, among other indignities, illegal taxation and tyrannical exploitation by an imperious English king, as well as striving to maintain rights and liberties they had devoted their entire lives to securing. Today’s weekend demonstrators are cranked about a whole variety of issues, but mostly they seem to just want to attend a sort of political Woodstock and generically bitch about those policy aspects of the current administration with which they disagree. The facile co-opting of the emotional horsepower contained within the philosophical bone and sinew of real American patriots by today’s pseudo-political saturnalians strikes me as impertinent toward, if not contemptuous of, those old guys’ heroic exertions.

Many, if not most, modern-day TPers appear to this observer to be only inflamed with the “pious ecstasies of the dissidence of dissent“, to borrow a wonderfully descriptive phrase from Russell Kirk. They’re into the scene – the self-absorbed urgency of the throng – with no very clear idea of where their perhaps well-intentioned flailing about will take them or their disordered enterprise. That old Shakespearean phrase comes to mind: “... full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

I consider myself to be a member of the Tea Party Movement, broadly defined. I was a founding member/leader of Grassroots in Nebraska, although I am not much involved with that group today. More recently, I have been working with about a half-dozen people at Give Me Liberty TV, making TV shows and clips. See for example our most recent show. I don’t think you can get any more “grassroots” than GML-TV: everything is done by individual initiative and consensus, and we have no budget.

Although Uncle Wiggily is one of my favorite rabbits, his criticism struck me as a bit harsh. Feel free to read his entire post and the comments, although I won’t quote them all here. He goes on to express concern that the TP groups will end up splitting the opposition to progressivism, resulting in the triumph of the very forces we are protesting against. This is a serious issue and the main reason I don’t support creating a Tea Party Party. UW is certainly right about the different levels of risk assumed by the original Tea Party members vs. today. However, in my experience people in the Tea Party Movement have tremendous respect and admiration for the Founders.

What bothered me, though, was that smart folks like UW and his commenters seemed to have absorbed a lot of the MSM line characterizing the Tea Party Movement as primarily Angry Racist Kooks. That doesn’t square with my personal experience at all. The most apt description I have heard for the TPM, from Larry Kudlow, I believe, is “free market populists.” Some good work has been done toward understanding the Tea Party Movement by people who are not out to discredit the protesters, such as this from Kristen Soltis at the Winston Group:

Some of our findings were unsurprising — tea-party members tend to be conservative; a majority are Republican; they are concerned about the federal deficit and spending.

But some four out of ten tea-party members aren’t Republican, and a third aren’t conservative, painting a picture of a movement that is hardly monolithic.

There’s quite a bit of data to sift through, but the critical storyline that emerges is this: The tea-party movement is driven by concern about the economy and jobs. Yes, they place a high level of importance on the national deficit — over three times as many tea-party members name it as their top issue than do voters overall — but it doesn’t end there.

In question after question, tea-party members expressed their belief that things like low taxes and reduced spending can create jobs.  For instance, 85 percent say that cutting taxes for small businesses will create more jobs than increased government spending on infrastructure projects. Yet when pressed on what they’d prefer — a balanced budget or a 5 percent unemployment rate — 63 percent picked the unemployment rate, similar to the overall sample of voters at 64 percent.

Similarly, Ramesh Ponnuru and Kate O’Beirne argue that the GOP should consider the Tea Party Movement an opportunity rather than a threat:

The first [myth] is that the tea partiers are driven by racial animus against the president. Actually, a third of the people who participated in tea-party rallies say that they approve of Obama’s performance in office and a fifth say that they voted for him in 2008. Five percent of them are black, 11 percent Hispanic. Of those who agree with the protests, 29 percent approve of Obama’s performance. Waters and Krugman can rest easy.

The second myth is that the tea partiers are unpopular. Krugman wrote last April that the tea parties “have been the subject of considerable mockery, and rightly so,” and Brooks speculated that “the tea-party tendency” might “be the ruin of the Republican party, pulling it in an angry direction that suburban voters will not tolerate.” Some Republican officials worry that media criticism and Democrats’ attacks on the activists have made it politically risky to associate themselves with the tea-party movement.

The polls do not bear out this fear. Most voters don’t consider themselves well-informed about the tea parties, but have a favorable view. As noted already, 53 percent of the electorate look sympathetically on the tea parties. McLaughlin also asked likely voters which characterization of the tea parties they leaned toward: an “anti-government, fringe organization that is driven by anger” or a group of “citizens concerned about the country’s economic future.” A majority of 57 percent chose the benign characterization while only 19 percent disagreed. Even a plurality of self-identified liberals went with “concern” rather than “anger.”

It really should not be difficult for the GOP to win over the majority of the Tea Party Movement, provided the GOP is actually willing to stand up for the principles it claims to hold dear:

But Republicans can do more than hope. They can appeal to the tea partiers and ally with them. While the tea partiers often express disgust with the Republican record on spending and bailouts, their views on most issues are within the mainstream of the Republican party. As we have seen, they are concerned about deficits but enthusiastic about tax cuts; they are pro-life; they are pro-defense. McLaughlin also finds that they favor increased reliance on nuclear power. They listen to the same talk-radio shows that conservative Republicans do. Their demographic profile looks very similar to that of Republicans.

Which is not surprising, since they’re generally the same people. The tea partiers are, for the most part, Republicans. Specifically, they are a highly engaged, but not highly partisan, segment of the party. A majority self-identify as Republicans and as conservatives. A full 68 percent of tea-party sympathizers voted for John McCain in 2008 — which was, it need hardly be noted, low tide for the GOP. Some of the tea-party activists take pride in their movement’s independence from the Republican party, and Republicans reaching out to them need to be mindful of that fact. But it’s also true that they’re not going to have to reach very far.

Michael Barone sees the Tea Parties as the continuation of the long-term struggle between the ideas of “Progressives” (i.e. statists) and those of the Founders (i.e. individualistic, free market), as embraced by the TPM. That certainly describes the attitudes of the people I have met in the Tea Party Movement (in person and online). Some see the GOP as the natural home of the movement, since these are ideals long espoused by the party. Most agree that the GOP blew it and bears a lot of responsibility for the mess we are in now. Some are convinced the GOP has now seen the light and are ready to re-join it. Others, including me, think that some in the GOP have seen the light, but too much of the party infrastructure is just waiting for the storm to blow over so they can get back to business as usual.

As far as Tea Party events themselves, it’s a tricky path to find the right notes. If things are too “light” some (e.g. UW) may feel the movement lacks seriousness. If things get too passionate, it’s “hate speech” or “racism” to those who disagree. If one person looks or sounds like a goofball or brings an offensive sign, he/she is a magnet for TV news reporters: See! We told you they are all Kooks and Klansmen!

It would be a mistake to think of the Tea Party Movement as some monolithic, nationwide organization, as sometimes portrayed in the MSM, or by self-appointed, national “leaders” of the TPM. It’s very much a local phenomenon that is breaking out nationwide, with local groups and leaders cooperating and competing with each other. Not everyone has the same goals, either. As my friend, Ed, put it the other night: It’s like we all agree we should head west, but to some that means Los Angeles, while others are thinking Alaska, and everywhere in between. Throw in the regional cooperation/competition, with GOP and national organizations trying to “lead” it, and the results are often not particularly pretty. Most of us are amateurs, after all.

We’ve basically got one shot left to stop this statist juggernaut, and it starts in November. The Dems must be severely punished at the polls, and the spending floodgates must be closed. In 2012 we get our one shot to repeal the ObamaCare monstrosity by electing a president and large Congressional majorities committed to that. I welcome the help of everyone who is pursuing that goal in a non-violent, non-nutty way.

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3 Responses to “Who Are These Tea Partiers?”

  1. ptg said

    Uncle Wiggily is has my admiration and respect as a person and as a blogger, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on his political predictions. I took the quoted post as a warning that ought more properly to have been directed at the GOP instead of the Tea Party crowd. If the conservative vote is split, I will blame the old line GOP faction, the ones who gave us McCain and tried to manipulate Palin, not the TPers.

  2. Uncle Wiggily said

    Dan:

    A well documented and closely reasoned riposte to my Tea Party maunderings – kudos.

    I am a relatively non-confrontational soul, and when I criticize I try very hard to make a clear distinction between the shoemaker and his last; in other words, I may disparage a behavior or a philosophy, but never the person. I do not possess enough love, intellect, or virtue myself to do that.

    A small concession, engendered by pt’s thoughtful comment above: my apprehension about the Tea Party diluting the “conservative” vote is of course predicated upon the emergence of a genuine 3rd party (which many in your movement openly support). If no viable 3rd party materializes then clearly the potential for vote-splitting is significantly reduced. I would also note that in either case I have serious reservations about the Tea Party candidates enjoying anything but marginal success – thanks mostly to the way the two-party system has stacked the deck against external challenges.

    Let me say it again … I hope I’m wrong about all this; this nation desperately needs new direction and leadership, and that implies deep-sixing (note to beady-eyed detractors – “deep-sixing” is a metaphor only) most of the current pols and bureaucrats. It’s just that my pessimism is not gratuitous (my nihilism is not ex nihilo?) – it’s born out of long and bitter experience. I just don’t like our chances.

    Tu ne cede malis.

  3. Dan Draney said

    UW & PTG,
    I think I’ll do a separate post on the huge downside to the 3rd party route.

    -Abe

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