Scholar Robert Putnam, best known for his study of American atomization in "Bowling Alone," has produced new data on the Tea Party and it's being billed as a shocker. Sit down before you read this: They are older, white conservative Christians "who were highly partisan Republicans long before the Tea Party was born."
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.
This inclination among the Tea Party faithful to mix religion and politics explains their support for Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. Their appeal to Tea Partiers lies less in what they say about the budget or taxes, and more in their overt use of religious language and imagery, including Mrs. Bachmann’s lengthy prayers at campaign stops and Mr. Perry’s prayer rally in Houston.
In short, the tea-party is nothing but a new name for the same old right-wing bigots who have opposed every socially progressive policy since the Civil Rights act! The same bigots who wanted to make sure black people could not vote, live in their neighborhoods, or attend their schools, now oppose a black president. The same right-wing religious extremists who want Genesis taught in their kids' biology courses and think America should be a nation for Christians only, now want Michelle Bachmann to lead their country.
Enough nonsense! There is no such thing as the tea-party; it's just the same far right cranks and loons we've had to deal with for a very long time. So let's do what you ought to do with such quacks: let them rant and rave like the madmen they are, and ignore their wild chants when we actually sit down as rational people to attempt policy.
It's time to throw the tea-bag in the trash.