The Tea Party is generally described as a populist protest movement that emerged in the US in early 2009. Given the acute economic pain inflicted on so many by the ongoing financial crisis - e.g., increased unemployment, housing foreclosures and personal bankruptcies - it would be perfectly understandable if the people most hurt by the crisis formed the core of the Tea Party.
But the NYT/CBS poll reveals a very different story, succinctly summarized in the title of this follow-up Times article, Tea Party Supporters Doing Fine, but Angry Nonetheless: “The Tea Party supporters now taking to the streets aren’t the ones feeling the pain. . . they are better educated and wealthier than the general public. They are just as likely to be employed, and more likely to describe their economic situation as very or fairly good.”
The 18 percent of Americans who identified themselves as Tea Party supporters are relatively well off economically. Almost 80 percent rate their household’s financial situation as fairly or very good. Only 14 percent feel any hardship from the recession. Over half have family incomes over $50,000. 70 percent have attended or graduated from college.
However, more than 90 percent feel that the country is generally going in the wrong direction and are quite dissatisfied with the way things are going in Washington. More than half describe their feelings as not just dissatisfied, but angry.
Which raises the question: If Tea Party members are generally well off and have not been hurt all that much by the recession, why are they so angry?
Clues to the answer may be found when you examine the background of Tea Party members. The picture that emerges is of a group of Americans - predominantly male (59 percent) and significantly whiter (89 percent) and older (75 percent over 45) than the general population - who are very upset that the country is being run by people who do not share their values for the benefit of people who are not like them. They are committed to Take America Back.
The start of the Tea Party movement coincides with the election of Barack Obama. They really don’t like him. Eighty-eight percent disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling his job as President; 75 percent believe that he does not share the values most Americans are trying to live by; and 30 percent still believe that he was not born in the US, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Tea Party supporters repeatedly assert that they are not racists and that their strong dislike of President Obama is not racially motivated. The Tea Party is clearly not a hate group like the Ku Klux Klan or the various militia movements on the fringes that openly advocate hate, hostility or violence toward those they do not like. Their income, education and political influence place the vast majority of Tea Party supporters much closer to the establishment than to any such fringe groups. And in 21st century America you cannot be a well respected member of the establishment and openly advocate racist positions.
But, while not overtly racist, their vision for America does not seem to include people who are not like them as full-fledged members of the same establishment of which they are a part. Tea Party supporters seem to strongly resent the educational, economic and political advances made by women, blacks, Hispanics and other minorities over the past few decades, so concretely symbolized by the election of Barack Obama.
Their American Dream is more tribal than inclusive. They are nostalgic for the good old days, when the country was much less diverse, when we lived in a more patriarchal society where women knew and accepted their place, and when the establishment only included people like them. While most of us celebrate America’s ability to integrate and empower any group that is willing to work hard and play by the rules, Tea Party supporters see this increasingly inclusive society as a threat to them and evidence that America’s best years are behind us.
In the end, this is a classic story of the passing of an era, where the group once on top resents that they now have to share power with others who look different from them and do not necessarily share their values. This passing of an era is perhaps best illustrated by three major, historical changes that the US has been going through since the 1960s.
First among them is the changing demographics of our population:
“Currently, population growth is fastest among minorities as a whole, and according to the Census Bureau's estimation for 2005, 45% of American children under the age of 5 belonged to minority groups. . . Immigrants and their U.S.-born descendants are expected to provide most of the U.S. population gains in the decades ahead. Since the liberalization of immigration policy in 1965, the number of first-generation immigrants living in the United States has quadrupled, from 9.6 million in 1970 to about 38 million in 2007. Almost 97% of residents of the 10 largest American cities in 1900 were non-Hispanic whites. In 2006, non-Hispanic whites were the minority in thirty-five of the fifty largest cities.”
The status of women in the workforce has also undergone major changes. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of women in the workforce has risen from 43.3 percent in 1970 to 59.5 in 2008. “In addition, women have increasingly attained higher levels of education: among women aged 25 to 64 who are in the labor force, the proportion with a college degree roughly tripled from 1970 to 2008. Women's earnings as a proportion of men's earnings also have grown over time. In 1979, women working full time earned 62 percent of what men did; in 2008, women's earnings were 80 percent of men's.”Finally, mainstream values today are quite different from what they were fifty years ago, before the
culture wars of the 1960s. In those days, the values battleground included civil rights, feminism, the sexual revolution and patriotism and the Vietnam War.
The culture wars have returned, with Barack Obama and Sarah Palin as the fresh new faces on each side. The themes are contemporary, yet familiar: immigration reform, gay rights, separation of church and state, reproductive rights and climate and the environment.
It is also important to keep in mind that this anger at the “passing of an era” is nothing new. Throughout our history, the US has seen a variety of populist protest movements, usually when the country’s population and intrinsic character are in rapid flux, either because it is absorbing new kinds of immigrants or empowering previously dispossessed groups. In the 1840s and 1850s, for example, the Know Nothing supporters feared “that the country was being overwhelmed by German and Irish Catholic immigrants who were often regarded as hostile to US values and controlled by the Pope in Rome.”
A hundred years later, the Dixiecrats, led by Strom Thurmond, were determined to protect their Southern way of life against what they saw as an oppressive federal government. Twenty years later, George Wallace was the presidential candidate of the American Independent Party, running on a platform to end federal support of civil rights and desegregation, as well as appealing to those upset at the raging anti-Vietnam War protests and other culture war issues with a campaign emphasizing strict law and order.
More recently, Ross Perot received almost 19 percent of the popular vote in the 1992 presidential election on a platform of protectionism in trade, ending the outsourcing of jobs, and generally opposing the growing forces of globalization.
But history inexorably marches on. US demographics have continued to change over the past two centuries as immigrants from all over the world continue to view America as the land of freedom and opportunity. Groups once discriminated against continue to take their places at the seats of power once denied them in business and government. And social mores continue to change with the passing of time.
Groups like the Tea Party will continue to rise, rally against these changes and try to Take America Back, egged on by the demagogues of their day looking to exploit their fears for their own power and riches. But the end is always the same. No one can Take America Back, because what they are really fighting is the fair, inclusive and democratic character of the country, a character that gets reaffirmed and strengthened generation after generation.