Most Tea Party members would have us believe that the TPs are simply opposed to Obama’s economic policies and not to Obama. The data, however, suggest otherwise. First, the Tea Party movement got started before Obama had a chance to announce, let alone, implement most of his economic policies. The first signs of the TP movement occured in early 2009, after the stimulus bill was passed but before health care reform and other initiatives were passed. In one survey, 76% of Tea Party members joined before May 2009. Indeed, some conservative leaders trace the TP movement to discontent under Bush to his budget busting fiscal and political policies. The behind the scenes Tea Party organizer, Richard Armey, calls the TP movement the first in a succession of conservative political waves in the United States that is “borne out of fear and despair.” Armey claims that this discontent is aimed at the fiscal policies of the federal government, both under Obama and Bush. I believe that this political discontent, though visibly public, masks a deeper, unacknowledged economic despair and fear. Obama’s election was the spark that got the fire going in a sector of this society that has seen their priviledge, wealth, and job security eroded by a decades-long economic process. Tea Party members don’t have to agree with this explanation for it to be true. It is my analysis of the conditions that I think have given rise to a surprisingly vibrant movement. That analysis is based on a number of patterns.
One pattern is the demographic. Tea Party members tend to be white, male, and middle class. There are very few blacks and Latinos or poor people in the TPs. The research that shows this to be true includes the New York Times poll, the Sam Adams Alliance study, the CNN poll, the Frum survey, the Wiser study, and the Quinnipiac study. This TP demographic are exactly the group in this society that have been most affected, through personal experience or personal fear, by the decline of manufacturing and mid-skill white collar jobs and middle level incomes.
Aside from who are TP members, the research also shows that the attitudes of TP members point to an underlying fear of their economic future. In the 2010 Frum study, 75% of TP members stated that their personal economic situation was deteriorating compared to two years ago and compared to minorities. In the Wiser study,
large proportions of TP supporters claimed that Blacks would be a lot better off if they just tried harder and that immigrants took jobs from Americans. In the New York Times survey, 52% or TP members believed that “too much had been made of the problems facing black people.” In comparison, only 28% of non-TP members believed that. In that same Times study, 42% of TP members compared to 23 non-members believed that the economy was getting worse.
A Pew Research Center study provides even more complelling evidence of the economic foundations for TP rage. The Pew study showed that a majority of the middle class believes that they have either not moved forward economically or have fallen backward since 1964. The recent trends are unmistakable. In the last two year, as the figure below makes clear, the middle classes are a lot more pessimistic about their ability to advance. More believe that they are worse off than in the past and fewer believe that the present, for them, is better than the past.
That most TP members don’t see their own reasons for joining the movement as a reaction to economic decline of the white middle classes is interesting but not a compelling argument against this analysis. Afterall, TP members have been known to exaggerate their complaints (Obama is a socialist), falsify charges against government (death squads), and demonstrate ignorance about the very thing they claim to oppose (Government, keep your hands off my medicaid). One telling example was a TP member who claimed taxes were raised on everyone under Obama when, in fact, she had received a $400 tax rebate. They are just not reliable observers of their own condition.