Support for the Tea Party is in a free fall. According to a Pew Research Center study conducted between November 9–14 and released earlier this week, 27 percent of the general public now disagrees with the Tea Party, nearly double the 14 percent who said so in March 2010. The number of people who agree fell from 24 percent to 20 percent. And within districts represented by Tea Party-loyal members of Congress, the trend is perhaps strongest: The number of people who disagree with the Tea Party has more than doubled from just 10 percent in March 2010 to 23 percent today. The number of people who agree has also fallen from 31 percent to 25 percent in the same period. Regarding the Tea Party, in any case, it would appear that familiarity breeds contempt.
These numbers should not be so surprising. (Nor should the fact that if you look closely at the Pew numbers, a good half of America is not really paying attention to the Tea Party one way or another.) In fact, it’s consistent with what we know about who actually makes up the Tea Party movement rather than the overhyped movement that so many in the mainstream media led us to believe was poised to take over America.
The New Yorker’s Ben McGrath described the Tea Party as a motley collection of “goldbugs, evangelicals, Atlas Shruggers, militia-men, strict Constitutionalists, swine-flu skeptics, scattered 9/11 ‘truthers,’ neo-‘Birchers,’ and, of course, ‘birthers’—those who remained convinced that [President Barack Obama] was a Muslim double agent born in Kenya,” intent on turning the United States into an Islamic Republic. This group also turned up anywhere Fox News promised to send cameras for much of Obama’s presidency.
Four academics confirmed this telling portrait. They recently presented a study of the views and attitudes of 2,000 voters sympathetic to the Tea Party at the 2011 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. The study said that these voters “reflect four primary cultural and political beliefs more than other voters do: authoritarianism, libertarianism, fear of change, and negative attitudes toward immigrants and immigration.”
And homophobia. No doubt many Tea Partiers disagreed when the Tennessee Tea Party chapter tweeted that retiring Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) was a “perverted sodomite POS!!” But many did not. (Not even, it would appear, the person charged with apologizing for it.)
The one issue that apparently unites this motley crew of Tea Partiers is the allegedly unfair levels of taxation paid by Americans, although this has to be a product of either misinformation or mass hysteria. In fact, as you can learn from Think Progress, the United States “actually collects the third-lowest amount of tax revenue” as a percentage of gross domestic product—the largest measure of economic growth—among the member nations of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD. According to the OECD’s latest data, Mexico (18.7 percent in 2010) and Chile (20.9 percent) have the lowest tax-to-GDP ratios among OECD countries, while the United States has the third lowest ratio in the OECD at 24.8 percent, with South Korea at 25.1 percent and Turkey at 26 percent.
The fact is this—anyone paying careful attention could have told you that the Tea Party was simply the old far right dressed up in funny new clothing. Its numbers historically hover between one-fifth and one-third of all voters depending on the times. These were the people who thought President George W. Bush was still doing a bang-up job at the end of his catastrophic presidency. Hence, pretty much nothing can make them rethink what they believe they know to be true.
Interestingly, the opposite dynamic appears to be at work in the coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is far more popular with the public than with the media. Even before its current slide in popularity, the Tea Party was never even remotely as popular as the Occupy Wall Street movement was when it began and remains today. As CAP’s Ruy Teixeira demonstrated back in October, the movement’s favorability rating was already “twice as high as that of the conservative Tea Party movement.” Teixeira noted that 54 percent of the public, according to a Time/Abt SRBI poll, said they were “favorable to the movement that has been protesting policies that ‘favor the rich, the government’s bank bailout, and the influence of money in our political system.’”
And according to an October Pew poll, fully 60 percent of those who followed news about the protests very closely last week said they supported the Occupy Wall Street movement while just 31 percent opposed it. These people had to work hard to keep up with the news about the movement, however, as news about the movement accounted for just 7 percent of coverage during the week in question. This wasn’t much but it was still almost quadruple the level it had been just one week earlier.
And when the mainstream media did cover the protests, many outlets tended to focus on its more outlandish aspects and rarely on their substantive arguments. In this respect, as in so many others, the majority of the American people demonstrate in their response to polls that they are more savvy and sophisticated about the news than the people ostensibly charged with explaining it to them.
There’s a further irony here: These Tea Party types can’t take “yes” for an answer. According to an extensive Pew study of public attitudes toward the press, Tea Partiers are just about the least likely Americans to trust the press. But they really should be down on their knees expressing their gratitude because the mainstream media, as we have seen over time, consistently puffed up the Tea Party, giving it far more attention than its misinformed fringe views would justify. Meanwhile, the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has always enjoyed greater support than the Tea Partiers—and whose support level for their issues is even higher than for the movement itself—has benefitted from none of this largesse. Indeed, much of the coverage has been sheer mockery.
Now that so many voters have discovered that they apparently purchased a defective product in Tea Party governance in the 2010 elections, perhaps a similar recognition on the part of the mainstream media will not be so far behind.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, The Forward, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.