By Joseph L. Conn
Is the Tea Party really just the Religious Right in a tri-corner hat? Two scholars seem to think so.
In a fascinating op-ed in The New York Times yesterday, David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam talked about the kind of Americans who came to identify with that much-discussed movement. Campbell, an associate professor of political science at Notre Dame, and Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard, have done the research to tell us where the Tea Party really came from.
“Beginning in 2006,” the scholars say, “we interviewed a representative sample of 3,000 Americans as part of our continuing research into national political attitudes and we returned to interview many of the same people again this summer. As a result, we can look at what people told us, long before there was a Tea Party, to predict who would become a Tea Party supporter five years later.”
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Some of what they found dramatically undercuts the Tea Party’s claim to be a spontaneous and nonpartisan uprising of “just folks” who want to “take back our government.” The movement’s troops, in fact, are overwhelmingly ultra-conservative Republicans who were already politically active.
And despite the Tea Partiers’ claim to be focused solely on lower taxes and drastically smaller government, their under-the-radar goal is a merger of religion and government.
Observe Campbell and Putnam, “Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics. And Tea Partiers continue to hold these views: they seek ‘deeply religious’ elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates. The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government.”
This bent toward theocracy may be one reason the Tea Party has fallen into low esteem with the general public. Campbell and Putnam say 40 percent of Americans now dislike the movement, more than double the number who held that view 14 months ago.
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“[T]he Tea Party,” the scholars say, “ranks lower than any of the 23 other groups we asked about — lower than both Republicans and Democrats. It is even less popular than much maligned groups like ‘atheists’ and ‘Muslims.’ Interestingly, one group that approaches it in unpopularity is the Christian Right.”
Americans may want smaller government, but they aren’t willing to get there on a theocratic bandwagon.
Remember Barry Goldwater, the father of the modern conservative movement?
In a 1994 essay, he wrote, “I am a conservative Republican, but I believe in democracy and the separation of church and state. The conservative movement is founded on the simple tenet that people have the right to live life as they please as long as they don’t hurt anyone else in the process.”
Until the Tea Party learns that lesson, we need to monitor its goals and activities carefully.