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David Campbell and Robert Putnam have an insightful editorial in today's New York Times. In Crashing the Tea Party they summarize their study of national political attitudes (from interviews with a representative sample of 3,000 Americans) and shed some light onto unifying themes and motivations of members of the so-called Tea Party.

Tea Partiers are united in their love of freedom and opposition to "big government", right?

That may be, but, according to Campbell and Putnam, the single biggest predictor of Tea Party involvement is "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 agenda is, according to the authors, far out of line with attitudes of a large majority of Americans. They argue, however, that the official stated emphasis and brand of the Tea Party is more in line with many Americans' "anti-big-government" values (a point I will take some issue with).

Another big predictor of Tea Party participation: whiteness.

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. [my emphasis]

There you have it. No disrespect, but the Tea Party is fueled by racism and religious bigotry. Dealing with these folks day-in-and-day-out during the health care fight, this much was abundantly clear to many of us. Now there's some research to back up what we knew in our guts.

Many will protest this assertion. To be clear, I think that overt expressions of racism are rare in the Tea Party. Some overt expressions of racism may even incite a negative response from many Tea Party members who would not want to see themselves or be seen as overt racists.

But the cloaking of the origin of motivational fears is the strength of the Tea Party. Here's how the game plan works:

  1. Stoke fear — white fear in particular, easily exploitable with the inauguration of our first black President.
  2. Use that fear to rile up a grassroots base. Yes, the Tea Party may have their own cable news network and a lot more resources thrown at them than we're accustomed to over here on the left, but it's a mistake to dismiss them as 100% astroturf; there is an actual base.
  3. Frame the national narrative and national economic issues with that mobilized base as the protagonist in a story about "big government" supposedly screwing over "the little guy."
  4. Hide actual policy goals within that grand narrative.

The so-called Tea Party was designed and branded brilliantly, as an intentionally ambiguous vehicle. It's an emotion-laden, highly branded, intentionally ambiguous symbol — designed to catalyze white closeted (or sometimes not) racists who consciously or not felt entitled to always have a white male President with an "American-sounding" name. The label "Tea Party" functions as an "empty signifier" — a vague symbol that different kinds of people with disparate values can identify with. This ability to unite different swaths of people (though in this case typically united by whiteness, at least) is possible precisely because of the vagueness of the symbol; it doesn't lose people by spelling things out too clearly. The Tea Party also acts as something of a political fetish object. Like a sexual fetish object, one latches onto an acceptable object to stand in for the thing that is forbidden. It is no longer acceptable in our society to openly admit one's discomfort with a black President. It is more acceptable (to one's neighbors and to one's own conscience) to embrace the Tea Party and our "forefathers" and to lament, "I want my country back."

This psychological need to cloak unacceptable fears into acceptable "remedial" action is how someone like Dick Armey can come along and channel all this energy into the service of an extreme economic agenda. The meme "big government" itself carries a story of an assault on values by a dangerous "other". This vague "otherization" is key to the Tea Party strategy. It's the cognitive thread that unites a lot of disparate themes. "Other" means threat, and there's one big file drawer in our brains for that threat. We can throw blacks and immigrants and socialists and homosexuals all into the same file, so that our fear of the "other" is triggered whenever we encounter any of the above.

The good news: the Tea Party is increasingly unpopular. Here's Putnam and Campbell:

Tea Party supporters have slipped to 20 percent, while their opponents have more than doubled, to 40 percent.

…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.

However, it would be a mistake to measure the Tea Party's success solely by its ability to make people like the Tea Party. Does Dick Armey really care if the Tea Party is loved by many? Is that why he and the Koch brothers and other plutocrats have put so much money and effort into this vehicle? To make people like them? Of course not. If in the process of pushing through an extremely conservative economic agenda we all come to hate the Tea Party, so what?

Putnam and Campbell mention early on in their editorial that, despite the Tea Party's growing unpopularity, "over the last five years, Americans have moved in an economically conservative direction: they are more likely to favor smaller government, to oppose redistribution of income and to favor private charities over government to aid the poor." It's important to note that they qualify this assertion of right-shifting attitudes: "none of these opinions are held by a majority of Americans." That said, if there has been a rightward shift in economic attitudes over the past five years — and I would love to see their research data — how much credit might the Tea Party deserve, however unpopular it is now?

I suspect a lot.

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