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Tea partiers: The anger is real; the media picture isn’t

By Kevin R. Kosar Sharron Angle’s recent U.S. Senate primary victory in Nevada was the latest in a string of high-profile tea party movement victories. The insurgency also helped Nikki Haley finish first in South Carolina’s GOP gubernatorial primary. Tea party voters helped Rand Paul defeat an establishment GOP Senate candidate in Kentucky last month, drove Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter out of GOP primary races and sank the re-election bid of Utah Republican Sen. Robert Bennett. According to a Harris poll in late May, the tea party movement is growing in prominence. About 85 percent of Americans have heard of it, and almost 40 percent of Americans say they support it. Yet, the movement remains little understood by much of the media. Stories tend to focus on the movement’s most colorful characters – the folks who dress up in Revolutionary-era garb, the Second Amendment advocates who go to rallies toting guns, and the birthers who insist that President Obama is the tool of international socialist forces. To readers, the message often is: These folks are weird. Media coverage frequently paints the tea party movement as a novel and contemptible political phenomenon. Michael Kinsley of the Atlantic Monthly offers the epitome of this perspective. He says tea partiers “sprang from nowhere,” and unlike the “selfless and idealistic” 1960s hippies, they are “nasty” and ultimately “self-interested.” Mark Lilla, a Columbia University political philosopher, wrote a more thoughtful assessment in the New York Review of Books. But he came to a similar conclusion. The tea partier is a “new type” of American, “the anti-political Jacobin,” who exhibits “blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing – and unwarranted – confidence in the self.” Weird, radically antigovernment, new and selfish – it is not a pretty picture. But is it accurate? I do not think so. What evidence that exists shows that the tea party movement is not a bunch of weirdos with uniformly far-out views. According to an April New York Times/CBS poll, most tea partiers identify themselves as married, middle- or working-class churchgoers. The vast majority have full-time jobs or are retired. It is true that nearly all tea partiers say they want a smaller federal government. Yet a majority of those polled also believe Social Security and Medicare are worthwhile programs. The very diversity of the movement makes it difficult for a majority of them to agree on which policies to promote. Politically, the movement includes evangelicals, libertarians, paleoconservatives and more. In one online forum, I saw tea partiers hotly debate Obama’s proposal to outsource much of NASA’s operations to the private sector. Some folks cheered this as downsizing government, and others said it would harm American space supremacy. What unites these different individuals under the tea party banner is the intense feeling that the United States has gone off track. They are worried about the economy and appalled at the federal government’s growing deficits. Tea partiers are just as outraged at George W. Bush’s Troubled Asset Relief Program as they are at Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Like previous populist movements in this country, tea partiers blame politicians in Washington, big banks and special interests for these problems. They view these elites as rich, arrogant cosmopolitans who do not share the values, patriotism and common sense of “regular Americans.” In the tea partiers’ complaints you can hear echoes of previous self-styled “men of the people,” such as Presidents Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson. Tea partiers rarely speak like Washington policy wonks. Talk to one of them or visit a tea party website and you quickly will detect this. I would characterize most tea partiers as patriotic moralizers. They speak reverentially of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers; they celebrate honesty and hard work. They debate politics and government in moral terms, frequently using words like “ought” and “should,” “right” and “wrong.” They are big on self-reliance. As a matter of simple justice, tea partiers expect people who do bad or foolish things to be punished or suffer the consequences of their actions. This strong moral streak is the key to understanding tea party politics. It is mostly a matter of values, not ideology or public policy. The more that government falls short of tea partiers’ moral standards, the greater their indignation. Thus, tea partiers view the various federal efforts to shore up the financial system as bailing out crooked Wall Street speculators and boneheaded home buyers. To them, earmarks are synonymous with political corruption, and tea partiers tend to think any effort to “normalize” the status of illegal immigrants amounts to rewarding lawbreakers. Weird, radically antigovernment, novel and selfish? No. Whether one agrees with the tea partiers or not, I think a more accurate description of the tea party movement would be American through and through. Kevin R. Kosar is a political scientist in Washington.

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