Sampling the Tea

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As Tea Party groups mark Tax Day by staging protests across the U.S., it’s worth taking a look at yesterday’s New York Times/CBS News poll, which paints a vivid picture of the movement. Journalists — and many others who aren’t among the 18% of Americans who consider themselves Tea Party backers, according to the poll — have had a hard time coming to grips with the movement’s meaning, in part because its supporters are drawn to it for so many different reasons. Yes, there are obvious threads binding the group — contempt for the Obama Administration’s policies, disgust with Congress, concerns about an intrusive federal government and spiraling national debt, and so on. But the inventory of grievances is so long and varied that spending time with Tea Party members would likely challenge any working hypotheses you’ve constructed about the group.

For example, a series of stories have pointed to the decision to eschew divisive social issues and focus instead on economic policy as one reason it has appealed to so many people. This is likely true, and yet a significant percentage of the Tea Partyers I’ve spoken with say social issues like abortion and gay marriage are high on their agenda. Other pieces have speculated that the Tea Party has been the beneficiary of economic insecurity and the high U.S. unemployment rate, since its jobless activists have more time for grassroots organizing. But the latest Times/CBS poll reveals the movement’s membership is wealthier and better-educated than average. This is a group resistant to classification, particularly since its members can’t agree on much beyond a few basic tenets: Washington is broken, freedom is a good thing, the Constitution is a brilliant document, capitalism beats socialism, limited government, etc. These are crib-safe political positions, and beyond that things get thornier. As if on cue, the Times/CBS poll even detonates the notion that Tea Party groups are universally for lower taxes–according to the survey, 52% of Tea Partyers regard the income tax they will have to pay this year as “fair.”

I spent yesterday at a Tea Party rally in Boston, and part of today at Tea Party events back in Washington. Here in DC I sat in, briefly, on a seminar for aspiring (and actual) organizers put on by FreedomWorks, the Dick Armey-chaired conservative organization, and then strolled across the street to Freedom Plaza, where crowds massed for a Tax Day rally. It was a loud, lively, typically eclectic shindig, populated by fair taxers, libertarians, free-marketeers, grandparents fretting over debt levels and lots of folks looking forward to throwing the bums out in November. There were signs decrying socialism, signs (and speeches) decrying racism, crude and nasty signs, anti-tax signs, anti-government signs, signs targeting specific Democrats and signs with grammar that suggested its bearer was lucky to pass third grade. Yesterday I spotted a sign that simply read: “I Like Ham.” I saw placards depicting Obama with the Joker’s makeup and Hitler’s toothbrush mustache, and I met friendly people who said they thought the President was a decent person pursuing misguided policies. To distill this stew of discontent into a bumper sticker just ain’t easy.

Talking to local Tea Party leaders and the organizations assisting them, it’s clear that if these groups are to maximize their impact on the midterm elections, they will need to transition away from protests and into the implementation process. That’s why the gathering taking place across the street at the FreedomWorks summit–where activists were learning how to build their membership with tools like social networking and media outreach–is far more crucial to the movement’s future than the headlines it will garner through its Tax Day protests.