What are the four primary characteristics most associated with those Americans sympathetic to the Tea Party? “Authoritarianism, ontological insecurity (fear of change), libertarianism and nativism.” So says one of the many findings in a study presented to the American Sociological Association on Monday.
The academic study, Cultures of the Tea Party, purports to break down the cultural attitudes of Tea Party loyalists, through a mix of polling data and interviews with tea partiers at a gathering in eastern North Carolina. The study’s lead author is Andrew J. Perrin, an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, with co-authors Steven J. Tepper, an associate professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University, Neal Caren, an assistant professor of sociology at UNC, and Sally Morris, a doctoral student in sociology at UNC.
The study used polling of North Carolina and Tennessee, conducted by Public Policy Polling (D) in the Summer of 2010, and determined the cultural dispositions by measuring the responses of tea partiers to set questions. After PPP surveyed over 2,000 voters who were sympathetic to the Tea Party, researchers then reinterviewed almost 600 in the fall of 2010. Those interviews included everything from personality based queries like “Would you say it is more important that a child obeys his parents, or that he is responsible for his own actions?” to more political ones, like “Do you think immigrants who came into this country illegally but pay taxes and have not been arrested should be given the opportunity to become permanent legal residents?” The study also incudes interviews and short responses with ten participants at a Tea Party rally in Washington, NC.
“American voters sympathetic to the Tea Party movement reflect four primary cultural and political beliefs more than other voters do: authoritarianism, libertarianism, fear of change, and negative attitudes toward immigrants and immigration,” a statement accompanying the report reads, as the findings themselves point out a few disconnects between the what self-described members of the Tea Party say and their actual policy stances.
The report quotes one Tea Party activist as saying, “We don’t want the big government that’s taking over everything we worked so hard for…the government’s becoming too powerful… we want to take back what our Constitution said. You read the Constitution. Those values - that’s what we stand for,” but that sentiment is not reflected in the polling data from the surveys. From the report:
In our follow-up poll, 84% of those positive towards the TPM [Tea Party members] said the Constitution should be interpreted “as the Founders intended,” compared to only 34% of other respondents. Other respondents were also three times more likely not to have an opinion on the issue, highlighting the salience of the question for TPM supporters. Support for Constitutional principles is not absolute. TPM supporters were twice as likely than others to favor a constitutional amendment banning flag burning; many also support efforts to overturn citizenship as defined by the Fourteenth Amendment. That TPM supporters simultaneously want to honor the founders’ Constitution and alter that same document highlights the political flexibility of the cultural symbols they draw on.
The TPM supporters’ inconsistent views of the Constitution suggests that their nostalgic embrace of the document is animated more by a network of cultural associations than a thorough commitment to the original text. In fact, such inconsistencies around policy, whether on the right or left, highlight what many sociologists see as the growing importance of culture in political life. The Constitution - and Tea Party more generally - take on heightened symbolic value and come to represent a ‘way of life’ or a “world view” rather than a specific set of laws or policy positions.
Read the whole study here.
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Kyle is the Editor of TPM Media’s PollTracker. He graduated from Beloit College (WI) and began working in politics before getting an M.A. in magazine journalism from New York University, where he interned at TPM and the website of The New Yorker.