Academics dub tea partyers devout, racist

Two years after it burst onto the political scene, the tea party is getting a critical eye from political science academics who say the movement’s adherents are knowledgeable and religiously devout - but hypocritical and more likely to be motivated by “racial resentment.”

Gathering this weekend in Seattle for the annual American Political Science Association convention, several professors argued that tea party Republicans are more likely than other voters and more likely than most others in the GOP to harbor racial hostility, as judged by their answers in a broad pre-election survey administered in October.

“Tea Party activists have denied accusations that their movement is racist, and there is nothing intrinsically racist about opposing ‘big government’ or clean-energy legislation or health care reform. But it is clear that the movement is more appealing to people who are unsympathetic to blacks and who prefer a harder line on illegal immigration than it is to other Americans,” Gary C. Jacobson, a professor at the University of California at San Diego, wrote in his paper, “The President, the Tea Party, and Voting Behavior in 2010.”

In another paper, Alan I. Abramowitz, a professor at Emory University, crunched the numbers from the American National Election Studies’ October 2010 pre-election survey and drew up a portrait of tea party voters that found they are more likely than other Republicans to be registered to vote, to have contacted a public official or to have donated to a campaign. They also are generally older, wealthier and more likely to be evangelical.

Like Mr. Jacobson, Mr. Abramowitz also said they were more likely to harbor racial resentment, which he judged based on their answers to questions such as whether blacks could succeed as well as whites if they “would only try harder,” and whether they agreed with the statement that Irish, Italians and Jews overcame prejudice and “blacks should do the same without any special favors.”

Mr. Abramowitz said tea party supporters were substantially more likely than other voters to question how much effort black Americans are making to advance themselves, versus being held back by social factors.

“Tea Party supporters displayed high levels of racial resentment and held very negative opinions about President Obama, compared with the rest of the public and even other Republicans,” Mr. Abramowitz wrote. “In a multivariate analysis, racial resentment and dislike of Barack Obama, along with conservatism, emerged as the most important factors contributing to support for the Tea Party movement.”

More than a dozen papers at the conference peered into the tea party, the movement’s philosophical underpinnings and its role in the 2010 elections. Titles included “Civil Rights and LGBTQ Scapegoats in the Tea Party Movement,” “Passionate Patriotism: Gender and the Discourse of Anger in the Tea Party Movement” and Mr. Abramowitz’s “Partisan Polarization and the Rise of the Tea Party Movement.”

Tea party leaders laughed off the scrutiny and chuckled when they heard the names of the papers.

“This is good. You’re making my day,” said Mark Meckler, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots.

“Statistics show that the vast number of folks that are in the world of academia are liberals,” he said after collecting himself. “Liberals don’t like the tea party movement. I don’t think that’s news.”

“From my perspective, they’ve literally become a caricature of themselves,” he said of the academy, adding that there are a “few exceptions.”

The academics posed a wide breadth of questions, but a number of them delved into what makes tea party voters tick. Others explored the movement’s philosophy and questioned its internal consistency.

Christopher S. Parker, a political science professor at the University of Washington, put the tea party’s proclaimed beliefs in limited government to the test on three questions: whether they supported limits on free speech, whether they believed in indefinite detention and whether they wanted broader police powers for racial profiling.

Using his own survey data, he concluded that tea party supporters were more likely than the general public to believe speech should be free of restrictions and were just as likely to support indefinite detention of suspected terrorists, but were more willing for police to use racial profiling to stop crimes.

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