Michael Wolraich's picture

    Who loves a Tea Party? Not who you might think

    Who loves a Tea Party? A recent NYT/CBS poll punctured a couple of myths about the makeup of today's paranoid right-wing activists.

    Myth #1. Tea Party supporters are motivated by economic anxiety

    This myth has been widely embraced without challenge by media analysts, politicians, bloggers, taxi drivers, barbers, and pretty much everyone else with an opinion on the topic. Even President Obama said, "There have been periods in American history where this kind of vitriol comes out. It happens often when you've got an economy that is making people more anxious, and people are feeling as if there is a lot of change that needs to take place."

    The idea seems to makes sense on its face. We're in a recession, and there are Tea Parties. Ergo, the recession caused Tea Parties. The common sense theory is based on what psychologists call the frustration-aggression theory. According to the theory, hardships like economic recession raise people's level of frustration, which leads in turn to increased aggression. But instead of directing their aggression against the source of the hardship, e.g. the capitalist system, people displace their aggression onto conveniently accessible scapegoats to whom they ascribe incredible powers for evil.

    But the frustration-aggression theory is not ultimately compelling in the context of large social groups. When psychologists originally applied the frustration-aggression theory to group scapegoating in 1940, it seemed like a plausible explanation for the fascist anti-Semitism that arose during Germany’s depression. Subsequent psychological studies, however, have failed to confirm the phenomenon.

    American history also belies the theory. President Obama was correct that there have been periods when paranoid vitriol has come out, but they have not necessarily coincided with recessions. The U.S. experienced its worst period of mass paranoia during the Red Scare, which took place amid the post-war economic boom of the 1940s and 1950s. In addition, what we often call the Red Scare was actually the Second Red Scare. The First Red Scare in 1919 also occurred during a period of economic growth. Moreover, while the Tea Parties are new, the right-wing paranoia that underlies them has been growing for decades amid booms and busts. Anti-Clinton paranoia bloomed as the economy grew rapidly during the 1990s. In 2005, while the nation soared on a housing bubble, Bill O'Reilly spun conspiracy theories about George Soros's secret plot to destroy Christmas to audiences as large as Beck's today.

    The NYT/CBS poll further undermines the theory that Tea Party supporters are driven by economic anxiety. Consider these survey responses to the question, Are you currently employed?

    Currently employed Temporarily out of work Not in the market for work Retired
    TP 56 6 5 32
    Avg 54 15 13 18


    Tea Party (TP) respondents are slightly more likely to be employed than nationwide respondents. Moreover, most of the unemployed TP respondents are simply retired, in marked contrast with the average respondent.

    Another question: How would you rate the financial situation in your household these days? Is it very  good, fairly good, fairly bad or very bad?

    Very good Fairly good Fairly bad Very bad
    TP 8 70 16 4
    Avg 9 64 16 9


    Notice that 78% of TP respondents consider their financial situation to be fairly good or very good and that average respondents are more than twice as likely to characterize their financial situation as very bad.

    And another: Which best describes the way you and your family have been affected by the recession? 1) The recession has been a hardship and caused major life changes, or 2) The recession has been difficult but not caused any major life changes, or 3) The recession has not had much affect one way or the other.

    Hardship Difficult Not much effect Positive effect
    TP 14 55 30 -
    Avg 19 50 30 -


    While the majority TP respondents do feel that they have been affected by the economy, they are less likely than average respondents to claim that the recess has been a major hardship.

    In summary, the frustration-aggression explanation for the recent growth of the Tea Parties lacks evidence of a causal connection. It is is not supported by psychological studies. It is not supported by American history. And it is not supported by poll data. Those interested in understanding the proliferation of political paranoia need a better answer.

    Tune in tomorrow for my analysis of the second Tea Party myth punctured by the NYT/CBS poll.


    I'm currently writing a book, How Bill O'Reilly Saved Christmas, and Other Right-Wing Persecution Fantasies, to be published in October. For more Tea Party myths, read my persecution politics series at dagblog.com.



    A quick and incomplete summary:

    We have massive unemployment, and the Tea Partiers are the people angry that the government tries to help the unemployed.

    It's not helping the unemployed, dummy, it's handouts to lazy people who don't want to work, aka socialism.

    It's the "Get Off My Lawn" syndrome. Sure, I walk on other people's grass because it feels good between my toes, but this is my grass so GTFOOH.

    Latest Comments