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Crashing the 'tea party'

A New York Times/CBS poll reveals much about the movement.

April 17, 2010|Tim Rutten

One of the things journalism teaches you over and over again is that nothing ruins a good story quite like the facts.

Consider, for example, this week's renewal of the chattering classes' infatuation with the "tea party" movement, timed to coincide with the deadline to file federal income tax returns. The group is conventionally portrayed as a burgeoning populist expression of discontent that sprouted spontaneously from the grass-roots and cuts in new ways across sectional, class and gender lines.

Reams of analysis have proceeded from those assumptions, but like a great deal that's based on anecdotal reporting, it turns out to be wrong. To their great credit, the New York Times and CBS undertook extensive, and expensive, polling that provides the first reliable look at the tea party supporters. Little that has been generally assumed survived the scrutiny.

As it turns out, fewer than 1 in 5 Americans "supports" the tea party movement in any respect, and just 4% of all adult Americans have contributed to it or attended one of its events or both. (On any given day, you probably could drum up twice as many people who think the Pentagon is hiding dead aliens in Area 51.)

Of the 18% of all adults who expressed support for the tea party, the overwhelming majority were white (89%), male (59%) Republicans over age 45 (75%) and significantly more affluent and better educated than the majority of Americans. One in five has an annual income greater than $100,000, and 37% have advanced degrees. More than 9 out of 10 think President Obama is pushing the country into "socialism."

The survey also found that more than half of the tea party supporters say "the policies of the administration favor the poor, and 25% think that the administration favors blacks over whites -- compared with 11% of the general public."

If all this is beginning to have a familiar ring, it's because you've met these guys before: They're the "angry white males" we've been reading about since political strategist-turned-analyst Kevin Phillips first identified them as an electoral presence during Richard Nixon's successful presidential campaign in 1968.

They share many qualities with other Americans. For example, while 96% of tea party supporters say they disapprove of the current Congress, 40% think their own representative does a good job, a sentiment shared by 46% of all adults, 73% of whom disapprove of the performance of Congress as a whole.

They aren't, however, implacable foes of "big government" or even of taxes. More than half (52%) told the pollsters they think their own "income taxes this year are fair," just 10% less than all American adults. Moreover, a majority told follow-up interviewers that, though they wanted "smaller government," they didn't want cuts in our largest social programs, Social Security and Medicare.

So much for the surge of a new anti-government populism.

What the movement really amounts to is old wine in new skins, a re-branding of the old-fashioned angry white male in a camera-ready package tailored to the demands of the 24-hour cable news cycle.

Let's return to this week, for example: There's nothing harder for TV to cover than a tax-filing deadline -- no conflict, no action pictures. By staging rallies on April 15, and particularly in Washington, the tea party's strategists made themselves and their speakers the center of cable news coverage. This was true despite the fact that, as the poll demonstrates, a majority of the movement's supporters think their taxes are fair.

As regular readers of this column will recall, the public packaging of the tea party movement -- and particularly events that win it TV airtime, like cross-country bus tours, rallies and ads -- is mainly the product of California Republican political consultants, foremost among them the Sacramento-based firm of Russo Marsh and Rogers. That company has not only promoted the movement but also used it to raise money for a political action committee, Our Country Deserves Better, founded to oppose Obama during the general election. This week, Politico reported that, according to federal filings, the Our Country PAC has raised $2.7 million since launching the Tea Party Express bus tours.

"That fundraising success," Politico wrote, "has also meant a brisk business for Russo Marsh." The website found that Russo Marsh and a sister firm received $1.9 million of the $4.1 million in payments made by the PAC; some of those funds would have gone for TV airtime and to vendors.

It's good to see that all the creeping socialism in the nation hasn't silenced traditional voices, like those of the angry white male, nor wrung the profit motive from our politics.

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