- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 4, 2011

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.

“The hypothesis would be if they were really just about freedom, they would be unabashedly, relative to other groups, in favor of freedom or supporting civil liberties. One would think that would be the case across the board, but that’s not the case,” Mr. Parker said in an interview.

In his research, Mr. Parker controlled for other factors and said the defining characteristic isn’t education level or class or racism, but rather that tea party supporters are more likely to be “reactionary” conservatives who strongly oppose change.

“It’s not about law and order, it’s not about education, it’s not even about racism as racism, per se. And it’s not completely tied into race. It’s this diffuse idea that our country is slipping away from us,” he said.

Mr. Parker said his research found that tea party supporters were significantly more likely to be involved in the political process and, as such, will be a force within the GOP.

Other academics saw other mechanisms at work. Emily McClintock Ekins, a graduate student at the University of California at Los Angeles, said tea partyers have more faith in the fairness of capitalism, which she said could explain their attitudes on race.

“This makes it less surprising that nearly all Tea Partiers believe that hard work, rather than luck, drives success. This might also explain their lower levels of racial empathy, as they are less aware for how opportunity may be different for particular groups of people,” she wrote in a working draft paper.

In his paper, Nicol C. Rae, a professor at Florida International University, said the tea party movement rose as a reaction to the failures of Republicans when they controlled most of the levers of the executive and legislative branches from 2001 through 2006, yet oversaw massive government expansion.

“George W. Bush had campaigned as the heir of Ronald Reagan, but his presidency yielded a huge new government bureaucracy in the form of the new Department of Homeland Security, and a massive new federal entitlement - the Medicare Prescription Drug program,” he wrote, saying it wasn’t surprising that conservative Republicans rebelled against that trajectory.

Yet another paper questions the conventional wisdom that tea party power propelled the GOP to its 2010 electoral victories.

“We failed to find any systematic evidence that the Tea Party was responsible for the Republican success in 2010,” professor Jon R. Bond and several colleagues wrote in their analysis. “Instead, we find that variables long cited by scholars of congressional elections [-] in particular, the incumbent’s previous electoral performance, the normal party vote in the district, candidate spending, and challenger experience - best explain the district-level outcomes of the 2010 elections.”

The authors of that analysis said the tea party did help nationalize the election by highlighting spending and the growth of government.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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