What Tea Party Backers Want

This survey confirms two things about the Tea Partiers, and offers a few minor surprises. First, the Tea Partiers are overwhelmingly concerned with economic rather than social issues.

This populist movement is not your father's culture war; in fact, 57 percent (question 67) favor gay marriage or civil unions, 65 percent favor access to abortion; an equal number (question 70) support some gun restrictions.

Surprisingly, the survey reveals Tea Partiers to be slightly more economically secure than the general population. Combine those findings with the fact that Tea Partiers are a well-educated cohort, and the narrative that the Tea Partiers are a bunch of pitchfork populist rubes becomes harder to maintain.

Second, the poll offers only scant evidence that racism or racial animosity is a dominant factor of the Tea Partiers, though there is some evidence of polarization that is a problem for the Tea Party as a movement.

An equal number of Tea Partiers (19 percent versus 20 percent of the general public) say President Obama's personal likability is his best feature, though twice as many Tea Partiers than the general public say they dislike Obama personally.

Some questions reveal a gap between Tea Party perceptions of racial preference behind Obama's policies, but one wonders whether a survey would find a similar gap if Bill Clinton were the object of inquiry; this is likely an aspect of party politics today.

There is not much more support among the Tea Partiers than the general public for the nonsense about whether Obama is a "native-born American." Repeatedly the survey's questions about government spending and an out-of-touch federal government generate off-the-chart numbers.

The fact that so many Tea Partiers are new to political participation suggests that, like the Perot voters of 1992 who were said to represent the "angry middle," a plurality of Tea Partiers are moderates who are simply shocked by Obama's great leap forward in the size of government.

The difference between 1992 and today is that the person--Perot--came first, and a weak movement followed for a time. This time the Tea Party came first, and it is unclear if it will coalesce into a clear movement or unite behind a political figure. (The survey's finding of skepticism about Sarah Palin offers another data point about the relative populism of the Tea Partiers.)

I think the most interesting question about the Tea Partiers is one that is difficult to gauge in a survey: While government spending and a low regard for Washington are the overwhelming focus of Tea Party energy, the centrality of the Constitution, and general references to meaningful constitutional limits on government power, are a recurring feature of some Tea Party rhetoric.

Not since the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s has populist political discourse focused on the Constitution as much as the Tea Partiers are today, though a specific program has not yet taken shape. The real promise of the Tea Party movement is that it may lead to a reinvigoration of the idea of constitutional limits on government--an idea liberals may find quaint if not hopelessly obsolete.

Steven F. Hayward is the F. K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at AEI.

Photo Credit: Flickr user ajagendorf25/Creative Commons

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Steven F.
  • Steven F. Hayward was previously the F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at AEI. He is the author of the Almanac of Environmental Trends, and the author of many books on environmental topics. He has written biographies of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and of Winston Churchill, and the upcoming book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents. He contributed to AEI's Energy and Environment Outlook series. 

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