Outlook: Five myths about the 'tea party'

Aug 09, 2010

David Weigel, political reporter for Slate, will be online Monday, Aug. 9, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article titled "Five myths about the 'tea party.'

I'm happy to be here, and if the quality of e-mail I've gotten for my Outlook piece is any indication, this is going to be a great discussion.

Five myths about the 'tea party'

David: Is the Tea Party for or against wars such as the ones currently waged in Iraq and Afganistan?

Generally, yes. This is a bone of contention between the Ron Paul, libertarian-minded tea party activists and the vast majority who joined the movement in 2009 and 2010. Those activists are, according to polling and every conversation I've had, pretty typical Fox News-watching conservatives who supported the wars. And I think people like Sarah Palin, who have credibility with these activists, have kept them on the reservation by speaking out in favor of the wars. One of the balls that hasn't dropped, actually, is the skepticism for the Iraq War that Dick Armey now expresses and the anti-imperialism that Paul expresses. So far, that just hasn't played a part in the movement.

Dave, if Republicans gain the majority in 2010, who do they nominate against Obama that they believe can win? Otherwise, in a 2010 failure to capture Congress, they gotta understand that if their message can't sell this year, it isn't selling, so they put who up as the sacrificial lamb?

I'd say "you should ask them," but they wouldn't want you to ask them. No one knows! Mitt Romney has put in the work, since 2005, to become a credible national candidate. He polls very well against Obama. But it's very hard to see how he wins a GOP primary as the man Obama gives credit for creating universal health care in Massachusetts. He needs a repeat of 2008, a primary where the candidates punch each other out and let the "flawed" guy in.

I don't know who Republicans would see as a "sacrificial lamb" -- at this point in the 1984 election cycle, Democrats didn't think Mondale would be a sacrificial lamb! But I do know they think Palin has the least chance of victory.

The Tea Party has a candidate for governor in Pennsylvania. I believe it is too early to tell how well this candidate is doing. Are there signs more Tea Party candidates may begin emerging?

Actually, tea party activists who are more Republican are working hard to prevent third party candidates. (I've written a bit about this - http://www.slate.com/id/2259924.) They dogpiled on the "tea party" candidates in Nevada and Florida, and I expect them to do the same in close races they don't want spoiled or Naderized.

Now, if the GOP wins Congress and doesn't satisfy tea partiers, bets are off.

While I agree that the Tea Party itself as an organization is not racist per se, there seems to be a somewhat virulent strain of racial undercurrent that is held by some (many?) of its membership. It is not always so outspoken and on display and can often be more subtle. It seems to most observers that it is a largely middle-aged and above, middle class and above white folks who feel disenfranchised for a number of reasons speculated on...

I tried to deal quickly with this in my piece. There is an academic argument, believed by the great majority of liberals, that opposition to "Big Government" is rooted in fear that the government is redistributing wealth to non-whites. This really isn't what conservatives think they're doing. They believe that big government oppresses and creates economic traps for minorities -- read Charles Murray on this. But I do think some commentators have stoked racial fears by, say, intimating that ACORN was behind the financial crisis, or pretending that the New Black Panthers are anything but a small pack of morons with no political power.

It feels to me that in an off-year election the Tea Party can have a big effect on the outcome. However during the 2012 election, interest will be high and the total percent of voters who are Tea Party voters will be less. What do you think?

You're right. Democrats are trying to survive this election, with an angrier, older, and less racially diverse electorate, before they can run another election with Barack Obama at the top of the ticket, pulling out the voters at the other end of the spectrum. But we can't predict this far in advance. What if Republicans win the House, they disappoint tea partyers, and the economy gets worse? I don't generally think third party challenges make much sense, but that's the sort of situation that would inspire one.

What comparisons do you draw between the Tea Party-ers and the old Dixiecrats?

That's a strange comparison. I don't think tea party activists who are obsessed with shrinking government would have gotten along with, say, Richard Russell. The tea party movement is strong in the South, but so is the GOP generally, and that's been the case as Dixiecrats started wearing elephant gear in the 1960s.

While tea partiers are rhetorically for less government, a poll a while back suggested they oppose cutting Medicare and Social Security. Given entitlement programs are the main drivers of rising federal spending, is the tea party movement a bit hollow it really doesn't oppose big government?

That's a sore point, isn't it? I was talking to a Pennsylvania tea party activist just a half hour ago, who said Medicare was unconstitutional, but admitted he partook in it, because he'd paid into it. Most tea partyers will tell you they want what they paid for but want to phase these programs out for future generations.

I feel that the Tea party is responding to a feeling among the public that government has become unresponsive to their needs. And here I mean not just their need for jobs, but also their need to have their values translated into government action. But where is the leadership in the Tea party? Sarah Palin, even though I assume she means well, is not the right person to come up with a positive vision. The same applies to some extent to figures like McCain and Gingrich. So where is the leadership going to come from?

Tea partyers are very distrustful of politicians, generally, but the ones they trust and follow are the ones with minimal or no political experience -- or in the case of Dick Armey, the ones who were in the game and renounced it. (This is part of Palin's appeal, by the way. Her fans see her decision to quit her job in Alaska and make much more money as proof that she's a normal person, not a politician.)

The question I ask is: Where do tea partyers go for their ideas, and for advice on what issues to care about? They go the media -- Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin.

You said that Sarah Palin was not the leader of the Tea Party movement, and that made sense. But a lot of people would consider her the "face" of the movement, in that she speaks for its point of view. To what extent do other Tea Partiers agree with this? To what extent to they agree with her positions and endorsements?

Actually, Palin's endorsements have been criticized by some activists. She endorsed Carly Fiorina in California's GOP primary when another candidate, Chuck DeVore, had cultivated more tea party support. She backed Vaughn Ward in a Idaho house race, when tea party groups supported other candidates. Palin's been most successful when backing candidates who were starting to surge anyway. (Lost to the winds of history: "Mama Grizzy" Nikki Haley was moving up in South Carolina, with the help of Mark Sanford's PAC, when Palin parachuted into the state to campaign for her. Boom, Palin got the credit for Haley.)

I think your "myth" about a racist tea party missed the point. The crticism of the tea party was not that they are racist while no other political organizations are. The criticism is that, until the NAACP spoke out, they refused to do anything or say anything condemming the racism. You can bet that any racist comment by a Republican or Democrat is immediately denounced by their parties...not always the case with the Tea Party.

I was wrong about how the NAACP's resolution would play. I had seen liberal critiques of the "racist" tea party go nowhere, for a year. But the NAACP so angered activists that it inspired the Tea Party Express's Mark Williams to implode, and it inspired whoever sent that Shirley Sherrod video to Andrew Brietbart to give the movement a bloody nose.

But overall, I think conservatives and liberals talk past each other on race. Most conservatives -- naively, if you ask a liberal -- really do think that the fact that people talk about race is the cause of racial division. (I've written about this: http://www.slate.com/id/2262806.) They think Harry Reid describing Obama's dialect as not "negro" is worse than Trent Lott wishing Strom Thurmond had been elected president, and are angry that the media judges conservatives more strictly than liberals.

I'm only a casual observer of the politics scene, but one thing I haven't understood is just what is driving the "government is too big" attitude that's gained ground since the Obama election. Is it all about the fact that people will need to have health insurance 4 years from now? I can't see how things have changed much in the last 18 months. My taxes are lower than ever. Maybe the anxiety about jobs/economy is somehow causing all this? I just don't get it.

I have a theory about this. Let's think back to 2002. If you are Bill Kristol, you have been saying for years that America needs to get on war footing and oust Saddam Hussein. All of a sudden, you have the majority on your side. What happened? 9/11. As we get further from 9/11, fewer and fewer people agree with you. It was a reaction to an event.

Now think of liberals and the financial crisis. If you're a liberal in December 2008, you just watched the country unite behind a liberal candidate who promised to take on Wall Street and grant universal health care. Two years later, what happened to those voters? A lot of time has passed since the start of the financial crisis and they've reverted back to the attitude they'd use to have -- business can be trusted, government can't. I'm glossing over a lot here (would things had been different had Obama not continued TARP, which Americans loathe despite their admiration for business?), but I think that's what happened.

If the Tea Party members are so distrustful of politicians, why the heck do they let Palin be "the face" of their movement? She's an opportunist who just happens to speak to many of their concerns.

Organizers like her because, like reporters, they bow to the god named SEO -- Search Engine Optimization. Write about Palin and get links. Get Palin to your event and watch reporters scurry in. Activists like her, as I said, because many believe she's an ordinary person who was mistreated by the media, and they can relate.

How do the tea partiers feel about farm subsidies? They seem to have (at least to me) an almost irrational fear of "big governemnt" yet I don't see them railing against farm subsidies. I understand Rand Paul hinted he'd abolish farm subsidies, but seems to have gone silent very quickly.

Good question. Two other GOP candidates, Stephen Fincher in Tennessee and Marlin Stutzman, have won massive tea party support despite taking farm subsidies. In Fincher's case, he told the Post's Amy Gardner that farmers needed this; Stutzman gave me a different answer, explaining that it's just impossible to be a farmer and not get on this dole, just as it's impossible to not pay into Medicare. I'm surprised this issue isn't playing larger in rural areas.

If that's true, they don't seem to realize that they sound like modern versions of the old Southern segregationists who claimed that blacks would have been happy without civil rights "agitators" stirring things up. These are the people who get more angry at Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton exploiting discrimination than at the discrimination itself.

I do think this is naive in a lot of cases. Not in the conservative approach to the welfare state -- there's social science there that backs that case up. But I probably join you in rolling my eyes when someone ambles on to Fox News to decry the injustice of Jesse Jackson saying something un-PC about white CEOs.

While we're on this, I think conservatives spend too much time focusing on irrelevent parts of Civil Rights history. You often hear conservatives point out that Robert Byrd was a Klansman, that many Democrats opposed the Civil Rights Act. True, but not really pertinent. Black voters don't care. They care about the legacy of red-lining, school segregation, exploitation by lenders, etc and etc -- a lot of issues on which there's really good history that more conservatives should familiarize themselves with.

Any hope for Palin Fatigue in the near future. I agree with your SEO thesis. I rarely passed up an opportunity to click when I saw her name just to see what funny, outragous or dumb thing she might have said. Then I realized I was just adding to the SEO. I call it the Anna Nicole Smith Syndrome. Why did anyone care what this person said or did? or Paris Hilton? If we the viewers lost interest, the media coverage would diminish. Do you think Palin will fade anytime soon?

If she doesn't run for president in 2012 I think her political brand starts to fade. As a celebrity, it's harder to say. If Bret Michaels can still make the cover of People, who's to say we won't be hearing about the exploits of the Palin kids well into the 2030s?

Black Tea:  African-American conservatives explain that the only racists are those who worry about race-based prejudice.

One of the key phrases of Tea Party rhetoric is to "restore Constitutional government" focusing on Article 1 and the 10th Amendment. But the Tea Party also seems to argue against the 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th, 14th, and especially 16th Amendments. When they say they want to "take America back" do they really mean back to 1775?

No, just to 1900, before the progressives started really making some damage. I don't think "ha ha tea partyers don't like the whole Constitution" is much of a gotcha. You're allowed to amend the thing! But I guess it's a good riposte to the way they use the Constitution in arguments, as a trump card -- this bill or that bill isn't enumerated, thus it's unconstitutional.

Do the 'Tea Partiers' propose any viable solutions to any of this nations problems indicating they have any real knowledge of the issues? Or do they just protest "against" others solutions?

Do any protesters have viable solutions? As activists go, they're some of the most intellectually curious we've ever seen, and they spend real time trying to figure out how small government would work. I do wish media figures and politicians would spend less time feeding them snake oil, because it does no good to have a political debate where "balanced budget" advocates think we can cut taxes forever and erase our debts.

While I can't speak for all Tea Partiers, and nobody can due to the bottom-up nature of the movement, I can speak for the libertarian roots of the movement and say at least our part of the movement would love to see farm subsidies end, social security phased out and the demise of lots of other third-rail programs and taxpayer-funded money pits. Do all Tea Partiers agree? No. It's a broad-based movement with lots of disagreements.

Yes. It's not the movement that people need to demand all of this from. It's the politicians who pander to them while trying to win votes from non-tea party activists. That's where the hypocrisy and unseriousness comes from.

What are the odds that the TP movement is going to split the already-weakened Conservatives, either fielding unqualified Tea Party candidates or causing a Te Party revolt against GOP candidates and helping the Democrats? It seems like Sharron Angle in Nevada is a classic example of this.

This might be overrated. There was no tea party movement in 2002, but then-Gov. Gray Davis (D-Ca.) did what Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) did this year -- destroying his more popular opponents in the GOP primary and helping an unelectable one win. That's not to say Angle is unelectable, just to say that partisan primaries often work out like this. Overall the energy of tea party activists will more than make up for losses by a couple of bad candidates who win surprise primary victories thank to grassroots support.

Do you think the Tea Party is being used by the GOP, like Bush/Cheney used the religious right in 2006, and then end up being ignored and mocked afterwards?

In some cases. Politicians like Tom Coburn and Michele Bachmann have been waiting for a movement like this for decades and believe in the same principles. But you're going to see some pandering. When a Republican pledges to revisit the 14th Amendment I hear echoes of the Republicans who promised they'd amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage.

Why do you think young people (18-30) find the Tea Party appealing, do you think they're essential to its "success", and how do you see them evolving as voters once the movement runs its course?

Well, the movement is generally older than that, but I think this is less a function of how great the tea party movement is and more a function of these people being young and unable to find the jobs they want. See also: youth support for Reagan in 1980.

Dave, An even larger point about the Republicans, in the name of the Tea Party, winning control of the House is that they don't have an affirmative agenda. I've seen a lot of calls for "Repeal" this and that. I've seen calls for investigations into Obama's handling of everything but the Kennedy assassination. I have yet to see, "Oh, and here's our jobs bill". Will a bunch of symbolic votes in the House that don't pass the Senate or get vetoed satisfy the Tea Party?

Tea partiers would not consider repeal bills "symbolic" if they passed. They are in this to get rid of as much government as possible. As to your other point, I know that some activists think that it would be a waste of time to hold a bunch of investigations of Obama, but it's going to be irresitable to the Republicans who win.

The NYTimes recently posted a large article on states un-paving roads, closing schools for long stretches of time, firing police officers, etc., as a result of budget cuts. Since the Tea Partiers want balanced budgets and agree that taxes should never be raised, are they cheering this? Or are they acknowledging these cut backs at all?

They're either not acknowledging it or they see this as the way things should be. Michele Bachmann says we live in "bailout nation." What she means is that taxpayers are asked to support government/infrastructure/welfare growth beyond any reasonable expectation, and asked to rescue projects that should collapse under their own weight.

In addressing the long term deficit of this country. Does the Tea Party have to get pragmatic in its approach to government deficits. In that entitlements, defense. And even the Bush Tax Cuts have to be put on the table to get the budget more in balance.

Activists are, by and large, supply siders who think we'll get more revenue if we cut taxes. I'm strangely optimistic about tea partyers getting serious about defense spending cuts at some point, but it's not a priority right now -- the idea that they have to protect the military from feckless liberals is the dominant idea on national security.

Dave, My understanding is that the Tea Party tends to focus on economic issues, not social/religious ones. So, how does Sharron Angel's comments on religion (God chosing her, no separation of church and state, etc.) fit with this paradigm?

It's definitely true that economic issues are now driving conservatives, instead of social issues. That doesn't mean social issues went away, or that social conservatives sublimated their obsessions. It just means that social conservatives now talk about economic issues in order to connect to the base. Think of the Family Research Council, for example, campaigning for tax cuts. Sharron Angle is a social conservative, but Republican voters weren't voting on that basis in the Nevada primary.

That was a great discussion! I'm sorry to the many people who fired off questions I didn't have time to answer. (Backing up my SEO theory -- a TON of Palin questions.) Find me at Slate -- http://www.slate.com/blogs/blogs/weigel/ -- or e-mail me and we'll keep up the dialogue.


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David Weigel
David Weigel is a political reporter for Slate, where he blogs about politics and policy. (Note: Slate is also owned by The Washington Post Co.)
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