What is the Tea Party? A growing state of mind

WASHINGTON – The Tea Party is less a classic political movement than a frustrated state of mind.

A year and a half after the idea of a Tea Party burst into view, three of 10 Americans describe themselves in the USA TODAY/Gallup Poll as Tea Party supporters – equal to the number who call themselves Republicans – though many of them acknowledge they aren’t exactly sure what that allegiance means.

“I don’t really understand it, but I like what they stand for,” says Terry Rushing, 63, of Greensburg, La.,. who was among those surveyed. “They just support everything I’m looking for – lower taxes, less government. …All the good things, you know.”

“What we need is to push the tea over the edge of the boat, and the Tea Party is trying to do that,” says Dale Jackson, 37, a school bus driver from Jefferson City, Mo., mentioning his concerns about illegal immigration and government bailouts.

Jackson’s comment and the group’s name hark back to the nation’s revolutionary beginnings in its tax revolt against England, and the Fourth of July holiday this weekend has become a rallying cry for supporters who plan a rally in San Antonio, a fair in suburban Atlanta and more. To look at who the foot soldiers are in the nation’s newest political army and what motivates them, USA TODAY combined results from national polls in May and June and did additional interviews.

The portrait that emerges fits a traditional conservative group. The ranks of the Tea Party include somewhat more men than women, and they are more likely to be married and a bit older than the nation as a whole. Residents of the South and West are the most likely to endorse the Tea Party, but it is unmistakably a nationwide movement: 28% in the Midwest and 27% in the East call themselves backers.

They are overwhelmingly white and Anglo, although a scattering of Hispanics, Asian-Americans and African-Americans combine to make up almost one-fourth of their ranks.

What unites Tea Party supporters is less their geography or demography than their policy views: a firm conviction that the federal government has gotten too big and too powerful, and a fear that the nation faces great peril. Nine in 10 are unhappy with the country’s direction and see the federal debt as an ominous threat to its future. Almost as many say neither President Obama nor most members of Congress deserve re-election.

They are much more downbeat than non-Tea Party supporters, who by 21 percentage points are more satisfied with the country’s direction and by a yawning 49 points are more likely to say Obama deserves re-election.

The Tea Party supporters who were interviewed bristle at the suggestion that the group is extremist, and some distance themselves from rhetoric that seems to advocate violent revolution. “As with anything, there are some factions that wig out,” says Bonnie Jones, 60, of Independence, Ky.

They deny that bigotry or rejections of Obama because of his race are part of the movement’s appeal, a perception fueled by YouTube videos showing racist signs at some Tea Party rallies. Even so, they do have a distinctive perspective on race.

Those who embrace the Tea Party movement are much less likely than others to see discrimination as a threat to the nation’s future and a hurdle for minorities. More than three in four say racial minorities have equal job opportunities; only half of non-Tea Party supporters agree. They overwhelmingly reject the notion that economic disparities between blacks and whites are mainly the result of discrimination.

Nearly half say blacks lag in jobs, income and housing “because most African-Americans just don’t have the motivation or willpower to pull themselves up out of poverty.” Only one-third of non-supporters agree.

And Tea Party supporters are much less sympathetic than others to illegal immigrants. By 4-to-1, they say illegal immigrants in the long run cost taxpayers too much by using government services rather than becoming productive citizens. That view is hardly out of the mainstream, though – it’s also held by 52% of non-Tea Party supporters.

“The Tea Party (gatherings) are not some radical meetings; it’s just average folks,” says Tim Brazil, 54, a small-business owner from Chesterfield County, Va., who has attended several local meetings. He says Tea Party members are agitated about the way things are going in the country, and for good reason: “Washington doesn’t hear us, and the Tea Party is waking them up.”

Engaged and skeptical

On the last big Election Day, in 2008, the Tea Party didn’t exist. Now the name encompasses the most energized segment of the electorate, one that has denied members of Congress renomination, created a new constellation of political heroes and pushed the GOP to the right.

Even so, the movement is less a party than an anti-party, with no clear consensus about whom its national leaders are and a generally dyspeptic view of organized political power.

“It’s a party opposed to the idea of parties,” says Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian whose book about the movement, The Whites of Their Eyes, is scheduled to be published in October. The Tea Party reminds her more of a religious revival than a political movement. She compares it to the Second Great Awakening in the 1830s, a religious resurgence that helped fuel temperance and abolitionism.

What emerges from the polls and interviews is a deeply engaged, highly skeptical group of people – even toward others in their ranks.

Jones voted for Rand Paul in Kentucky’s GOP primary, one of the movement’s most celebrated victories this year over an establishment Republican candidate, but says she is “kind of undecided” about whether to support him in November. “When you see his ads, you think, ‘Yeah, he’s not one of the mainstream politicians,’ but his dad’s a politician,” she says. (Ron Paul is a seven-term. Texas congressman and former Republican presidential contender.)

And she’s not enamored with former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who is a hero to some in the movement. “I don’t like her folksy sayings,” Jones says. “She’s just a politician like the rest of them.”

Whether such a loosely organized collection of people can sustain itself as a political force isn’t clear, although they have forged a formidable record so far. Tea Party supporters have helped win the Republican gubernatorial nomination for Nikki Haley in a turbulent South Carolina primary, deny renomination to Republican Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah and push Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter to leave the GOP. (He then lost the Democratic primary.)

The movement’s appeal will be tested this fall, when Tea Party-backed candidates face broader electorates.

Former House Majority leader Dick Armey, who describes himself and his group FreedomWorks as “mentors” for the movement, calls the lack of a centralized structure a defining characteristic and an asset. “It is baffling to the left because it’s a group of people who are not centrally organized,” the former Texas congressman says, chortling. “There is nobody running the Tea Party movement.”

Jim Sagray

Jim Sagray, 63, a retired high school science teacher from Roseville, Calif., and Tea Party supporter, agrees.

“I don’t believe there are any real Tea Party leaders; I don’t believe there’s any real national leadership,” he says. “It’s largely just independent groups fed up with how things are going in our nation.”

Armey calls them “the biggest swing movement on the field.”

Republican vs. Republican

Former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie calls the Tea Party “an organic enterprise” that would reject any suggestion that it is a GOP group, though he predicts most of its backers will vote for Republican candidates in November.

Most Tea Party supporters are Republicans or Republican-leaning independents, but that doesn’t mean all Republicans share their views. Their conflict, apparent in some primaries this year that pitted establishment candidates against Tea Party challengers, could signal a battle ahead for the soul of the GOP.

Among Republicans, 57% identify themselves as Tea Party supporters; 38% do not – and the two groups have distinctly different views. Non-Tea Party Republicans are twice as likely to cite the environment as an extremely or very serious danger to the country’s future, for example, and much less likely to see the size and power of the federal government as a dire threat.

Another big difference between them helps explain the Tea Party’s muscular influence in the party: An overwhelming 73% of Tea Party Republicans say they are more enthusiastic about voting this year than usual. Only half as many, 36%, of non-Tea Party Republicans feel that way.

Tea Party supporters generally are much more engaged in this year’s elections than others, fueled by a conviction that the country is at an historic turning point. In the USA TODAY Poll, 85% described themselves as extremely or very patriotic. Their events routinely feature American flags and characters in revolutionary garb.

Their faith in the Founding Fathers is a signature of the movement. Citing links to the Revolution has been a mainstay of American politics since the nation’s beginnings, Lepore says, but the way the Tea Party uses those symbols and language is original. “It is a fundamentalist way of thinking of the past: The founding documents are gospel; they come alive for us,” she says.

For Rick Barber, a Tea Party-backed congressional contender in Alabama, the Founding Fathers literally come to life. One video on his campaign website shows him talking to a character dressed as Abraham Lincoln as he likens taxation to pay for bailouts and health care as “slavery.” Another features him sitting at a table in a tavern, talking to characters dressed as Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams and George Washington.

After Barber describes the progressive income tax and health care bill as “tyrannical,” an angry George Washington growls: “Gather your armies.”

Many Tea Party supporters speak of the Founders in familiar terms.

“We’ve been running deficits for years and we’ve been saying we’re doing it to win the Cold War or to fight terrorism and fight poverty,” says Michael Towns, 33, a linguist from Tallahassee, Fla., who was among those surveyed. “I think our Founding Fathers are rolling in their graves because they never would conceive that we would do this.”

“This country was actually founded that we worked to be represented without taxation,” says Charlene Barber, 62, a nurse from West Blocton, Ala.,. who is pursuing a psychology degree. “I’d love to hear what the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and Constitution would have to say about this health -care bill.”

Present at the creation

Question: Who is most responsible for the Tea Party?

Answer: Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

President Obama’s ambitious agenda – the most activist of any Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson nearly a half-century ago – created a backlash. Not yet at the midpoint of his term, Obama has bailed out General Motors and Chrysler, won funding for a $862 billion stimulus bill, overhauled the health -care system and pushed legislation rewriting financial regulations. Within eight months of his inauguration, a majority. of Americans said his proposals called for too much expansion of government power. Six in 10. said they called for too much government spending.

The backlash has significantly increased the number of voters who call themselves conservative. Although 37% of Americans described themselves as conservatives in 2008, according to combined Gallup polls for the year, now 42% do. That’s the most since Gallup began asking the question about political ideology in 1992.

The growing conservatism hasn’t rebounded to the benefit of the Republican Party, however: 28% of Americans identified themselves as Republicans in 2008; 28% do so now. In 2004, the year Bush was re-elected president, 34% did.

Some Tea Party supporters who might have moved back toward the GOP express disappointment with Bush’s backing of the Wall Street bailout and Medicare prescription-drug initiative. They describe those as just more big-government programs that blurred the differences between the two major parties.

“Basically, Democrats and Republicans are screwed up, and the Tea Party is the only group that has their act together,” says Greg White, 23, an Army soldier from Ashburn, Ga. “Democrats are trying to be Socialist, and the Republicans aren’t far off.”

“The Tea Party is trying to change the country around because the Republicans and Democrats – I don’t think anyone knows what they’re doing in Washington anymore,” says Ed Bradley, 54, a retired police officer and judge from Lebanon, Ind.. “The Tea Party is trying to change this country to what it used to be.”

For right-of-center voters alarmed by Obama’s agenda but disenchanted with Bush’s GOP, the outburst by CNBC’s Rick Santelli on the floor of the Chicago mercantile exchange in February 2009 calling for a “Chicago Tea Party” for “the capitalists out there” struck a nerve.

The Tea Party was born.

Retired high school teacher Sagray says he was intrigued when he drove by Tea Party protesters outside a shopping mall, holding up signs urging drivers unhappy with the proposed health -care bill to honk. He parked, picked up literature and signed up for e-mail alerts.

Mary Molitor

Mary Molitor, 72, a retired mental-health aide from Lodi, Wis., went to two Tea Party-sponsored rallies at the state Capitol in Madison around Tax Day in April to protest what she sees as a federal government that has overstepped its bounds.

“The government is taking over everything – the banks, the automobiles,” she says. “I want my freedom back.”

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