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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Tarnished Tea Cozy

by digby

I recall being on a panel at some confab a couple of years ago, at the the height of the Tea party boom, talking about the fact that these people were simply the usual suspects in new costumes. People in the audience were reluctant to believe this, wanting to have this group be evidence of a new, trans-partisan populist wave that could be appropriated by the left with the proper appeals. I was skeptical --- these folks the same types as the 1963 housewife Rick Perlstein famously quotes in "Before the Storm" saying "I just don't have time for anything, I'm fighting communism three times a week." (He wrote about it here.)

After the panel, reporters Adele Stan and Sarah Posner approached me and pointed out that we'd failed to make the point that these were also the usual suspects of the religious right, and they were correct. The social conservatives had put their usual obsessions in their back pockets upon the inauguration of the Democratic black president, but scratch the surface and you found that most of the activists had cut their teeth in the home schooling or anti-abortion movements. Indeed, it was obvious that the Christian Right and Conservative Movement as a whole had simply re-branded themselves The Tea Party. Considering how sick people were of hearing from those people, it was probably a good idea.

The NY Times issued a poll in April of 2010 that pretty much confirmed what we had earlier sensed. Today they print a follow up piece on the subject featuring a new study:

Beginning in 2006 we interviewed a representative sample of 3,000 Americans as part of our continuing research into national political attitudes, and we returned to interview many of the same people again this summer. As a result, we can look at what people told us, long before there was a Tea Party, to predict who would become a Tea Party supporter five years later. We can also account for multiple influences simultaneously — isolating the impact of one factor while holding others constant.

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. And Tea Partiers continue to hold these views: they seek “deeply religious” elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates. The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government.

There you have it. And what are the implications of this? According to these authors, their study shows that the country is growing much more economically conservative but care much less about social issues which means that the overt religious appeals of candidates like Bachman and Perry are turning off mainstream voters. Indeed today's NY Times poll says:

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.

It's the same people. And those people are also the ones who do all the grunt work of the Republican Party and are having great success in states all over the nation at enacting their agenda. They may be unpopular over all, but they have power with individual politicians who depend on them to get elected.

The truth is that social issues have always been far more important to conservatives and a few lonely feminists manning the barricades than anyone else. And because of that, when the political fight is being waged on the economic or national security field, the conservatives score some big wins under the radar. There just isn't the energy, money or commitment from liberals, many of whom just don't want to engage on these subjects because they are icky and inconvenient for coalition building. (If my inbox is any guide, there are a whole lot of liberals who think it's nothing more than silly vanity and selfishness to even think about civil liberties and rights when the plutocrats are destroying our economy.)

But be that as it may, the unequivocal bad news for everyone in this article is that the country is becoming "more conservative" on economics which may be the biggest failure of the Democratic Party in my lifetime, even including Vietnam. But it's no wonder. The public hears almost nothing but conservative rhetoric on the subject, even from Democrats. After all, the leftward position now is that we need massive spending cuts and tax hikes in the middle of a long recession.

It's good news that the Tea Party brand has lost its luster. But then I don't think it was designed to last. The big money boyz who financed this bogus "movement" needed to create a transitional "independent" movement in the wake of President Obama's election because the Republican brand was in disrepute. But it's quite easy to move them right back under the GOP tent and call themselves a majority. It's smart politics.