The Tea Party has its roots in the Ron Paul campaign, and its
activists vociferously promote it as a purely small-government
movement, but new polling reinforces a notion that's gained traction
as we've learned more about the Tea Party: that its members are, by
and large, social conservatives, not social libertarians.
On the issues of abortion and gay marriage, Tea Partiers sit well to
the right of the general public according to a recent survey by the
Public Religion Research Institute.
(Note: the results are taken from a sample of 345 self-identified
members of the Tea Party movement, with a calculated margin of error
of +/- 5.5 percent. General-public responses were taken from the full
field of over 3,000 respondents.)
A full 63 percent of Tea Partiers think abortion should typically be
illegal--21 percent more than the general public. 26 percent of Tea
Partiers say abortion should always be illegal, while 37 percent say
it should be illegal "in most cases."
And only 18 percent of Tea Partiers support gay marriage--19 percent
fewer than the general public. 35 percent of Tea Partiers support
civil unions, while a whopping 45 percent support no legal recognition
So much of the Tea Party movement is about limiting the role of
government, and a dominant tone in Tea Party rhetoric--heard in rally
speeches and seen in materials disseminated via e-mail by Tea Party
groups--is that the government is doing too much, to a point where
it's denying American citizens their freedom.
But most of this, officially, has to do with spending. In fact, it
seems that the main intellectual solution offered, and problem posed,
by the Tea Party movement is the connection between government
spending and personal liberty.
The supplied answers have to do with the burden of debt on future
generations, the inherent infringement of taxes on personal wealth and
income, and the individual mandate instituted under health care
reform--the requirement that all Americans purchase health insurance.
Perhaps even more of it has to do with fear of President Obama and his
agenda. "Don't you know what they're trying to do?" an
early-middle-aged man asked me at Glenn Beck's rally on the National
Mall in August. I shook my head. "They're trying to take away our
That Obama is trying to take freedom away from all of us was a
recurring theme in what I heard from some attendees at the Beck rally
and from speakers onstage at another rally on the Mall organized by
FreedomWorks a few weeks later.
But none of it has to do with social issues. I have never heard a Tea
Party group, or a Tea Party crowd, or a Tea Party speaker call for the
government to end all involvement in abortion and marriage.
Those ideas do exist within the Tea Party movement, but, according to
this relatively small sample of 345 respondents, it's not shared by
most of the people involved.
The coexistence of social conservatism and the libertarian reasonings
behind the Tea Party's brand of economic conservatism probably make up
a fundamental contradiction for the movement, whether Tea Partiers
realize it or not. I don't sense that many of them see gay marriage or
abortion as matters of freedom.
"Coherence in contradiction expresses the force of a desire," Jacques
The Tea Party is full of desire, but I'm not sure social conservatism
means contradiction for those involved. The early organizers of the
Tea Party movement originally set out to avoid this clash. Some people
wanted to talk about social issues, but the people who wanted to avoid
them eventually won out.
Tea Party has been able to purge social conservatism from its broad,
national message, while still incorporating a vast number of social
conservatives into its ranks. It has become an outlet for anyone who
doesn't like Obama--and it manages to suppress social politics from
the spoken reasons.
As a result, lots of people in the Tea Party movement have a lot more
reasons for disliking President Obama, and for participating in
rallies, than actually gets talked about onstage.
And that, I suspect, offers them some coherence in contradiction,
housing but not advertising all forms of frustration under one yellow