Tea Party defenders routinely claim they’re “just conservatives,” but survey data disagree. (More)

Change They Can’t Believe In, Part II: Not “Just Conservatives”

This week Morning Feature considers Christopher Parker and Matt Barreto’s new book Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America. Yesterday we introduced their theory that the Tea Party is less conservative than a conspiracy-driven reactionary movement. Today we examine their evidence: two large, multi-state surveys of Tea Party supporters’ views on freedom, patriotism, and minorities. Saturday we’ll conclude with the Tea Party rejection of President Obama, why they wield outsized influence in the GOP, and whether this month’s debacle will diminish their clout.

Christopher Parker is the Stuart A. Scheingold Professor of Social Justice and Political Science at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the author of Fighting for Democracy. Matt A. Barreto is associate professor of political science at the University of Washington, Seattle, director of the Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race and Sexuality, and the author of Ethnic Cues.

“It’s really more about social prestige”

The authors begin their analysis of Tea Party supporters with a detailed demographic breakdown. As compared to opponents and those with no opinion on the movement, Tea Party supporters are:

  • Somewhat older, though less than a quarter are senior citizens
  • Somewhat less educated, though almost half have at least some college
  • Overwhelmingly white (84%) and mostly male (59%)
  • Relatively well-off (63% earn median or higher incomes, 24% incomes over $100,000)
  • Mostly “born again” Christians (53%)

As the authors note, these demographic patterns closely align with those of earlier right-wing movements, such as the 1920s-era Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society of the 1950s-80s. The authors’ 2010 and 2011 surveys also found that most Tea Party supporters identify as “conservative” (66%) and Republican (57%), and the vast majority claim to believe in “limited government” (85%). The surveys also examined the social attitudes of Tea Party supporters, and found:

    Racism – 42% of supporters scored high for racism, as compared to 14% of opponents and 24% of those with no opinion.
    Social Dominance – 58% of supporters scored medium or high for social dominance, the belief that some groups deserve special privileges over others, as compared to 24% of opponents and 48% of those with no opinion.
    Economic Anxiety – 47% of supporters scored high for economic anxiety, as compared to 38% for both opponents and those with no opinion.

Intriguingly, Tea Party supporters were not significantly more authoritarian or ethnocentric than opponents or those with no opinion. But the most statistically salient difference was:

    Fear of Obama – 67% of supporters believe the president’s policies are socialist, as compared to 14% of opponents and 24% of those with no opinion.

And when the authors looked at economic anxiety among whites only, they found an interesting wrinkle. Whites who scored high for economic anxiety were less likely to support the Tea Party than whites who scored lower. Coupled with the higher social dominance scores, the authors conclude:

These results suggest that whites are less likely to be drawn to the Tea Party for material reasons, suggesting that, relative to other groups, it’s really more about social prestige.

“Freedom” and “Patriotism”

Tea Party supporters often talk about freedom and claim to be true patriots. Yet the data show their ideas of “freedom” and “patriotism” focus on self-interest. In a survey taken just after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, 42% of Tea Party supporters said speech should not be stifled even if it provokes violence, compared to 19% of opponents. Supporters were also more likely to approve of racial profiling (47% vs. 9% for opponents) and indefinite detention for people accused of terrorism (52% vs. 33% for opponents).

Similarly, only 33% of Tea Party supporters believe the government should raise taxes if necessary to invest in our children’s education (what the authors call “economic patriotism”) vs. 78% of Tea Party opponents. And only 26% of supporters believe should pass laws to ensure equal treatment for all Americans (what the authors call “egalitarian patriotism”) vs. 65% of Tea Party opponents. If we define “patriotism” as a willingness to sacrifice self-interest for the good of the nation – as the authors and most social scientists do – Tea Party supporters are hardly “patriotic.”

But the most interesting data came when the authors compared Tea Party supporters’ responses on these questions to the responses of other conservatives:

  • Freedom – Tea Party supporters were almost twice as likely as other conservatives (46% to 27%) to defend freedom of speech even if it evoked violence, and twice as likely (55% to 28%) to approve of racial profiling. There was no significance difference on the two groups’ approval for indefinite detention of terror suspects.
  • Patriotism – Tea Party supporters were barely half as likely as other conservatives (26% to 47%) to support investment in education (economic patriotism), and less than one-third as likely (12% to 39%) to support equal opportunity laws (egalitarian patriotism).

The authors used regression analysis to determine whether these differences were simply due to Tea Party supporters’ higher scores on racism, social dominance, and other personality traits. While those personality traits also correlated to the survey responses, the data showed that Tea Party support was a statistically significant correlation standing on its own.

“An interesting contrast to their support for free speech”

The authors also examined Tea Party attitudes on minorities, focusing on the high-profile issues of immigration and LGBT equality. On immigration, 54% of Tea Party supporters rejected the DREAM Act granting legal status to immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, as compared to just 17% of Tea Party opponents. Tea Party supporters were also far more likely to advocate repealing birthright citizenship (56% vs. 39% for Tea Party opponents), to believe that immigrants increase crime (55% vs. 32% for opponents), and to believe immigrants have too much political and cultural power (54% vs. 17% for opponents).

On LGBT equality, Tea Party supporters were less likely to accept marriage equality (33% vs. 61% for opponents) or LGBTs serving openly in the military (48% vs. 76% for opponents), almost twice as likely to believe LGBTs should keep their relationships and struggles private (72% vs. 37% for opponents), and three times as likely to see LGBTs as having too much political and cultural power (40% vs. 13% for opponents).

And again, the more revealing data came in comparing Tea Party supporters to other conservatives:

  • Immigration – Tea Party supporters were more likely than other conservatives to believe immigrants increase crime (58% vs. 49%), more likely to back repealing birthright citizenship (66% vs, 46%), and more likely to oppose the DREAM Act (70% vs. 50%). The difference on their perceptions of immigrants as having too much political and cultural power was insignificant.
  • LGBT Equality – Tea Party supporters were more likely than other conservatives to believe LGBTs have too much political and cultural power (41% vs. 29%), more likely to oppose marriage equality (75% vs. 63%), and more likely to oppose LGBTs serving openly in the military (66% vs. 61%). On whether LGBTs should keep their relationships and struggles private, 74% of both Tea Party supporters and other conservatives agreed.

Again, the authors used regression analysis to parse out other factors such as racism, social dominance, and other personality traits, and found support for the Tea Party was a statistically significant correlation standing on its own. As they conclude:

While 63% of Tea Party opponents favor sexual minorities talking publicly about their sexuality, only 28% of Tea Party sympathizers agree. Not only do Tea Party supporters wish to limit the rights of gays and lesbians, they don’t want gays and lesbians airing their grievances or life experiences in public – an interesting contrast to their support for free speech [above].

Tomorrow we’ll explore Tea Party supporters’ loathing of President Obama, and learn why their greater activism and shared media sources both radicalize and empower them within the Republican Party.

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Happy Friday!