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At the moment, human rights activists are being urged to ignore the massive challenges presented by the Tea Party movement.  In a New York Times op-ed column by Charles Blow, he makes the claim that the tea parties are in a “tailspin.”[1] To reach this conclusion, Mr. Blow says he relies on an analysis drawn from a Pew Poll released on March 3.[2] Mr. Blow begins with the assertion that “The Tea Party is synonymous with anger. Anger defined it. Anger fueled it.” He concludes with statement “the movement is outliving its fuel. The movement is losing its momentum.” He paints a picture of the Tea Parties in decline and pushing “untenable positions.”  If we were to believe his argument, the Tea Parties would be nothing for anti-racists and small “d” democrats to worry about.  Indeed, even the big “D” Democrats would most assuredly win in 2012. And Mr. Blow ends his opinion piece on that point.

The data developed by IREHR and others does not support either Mr. Blow’s opening assumptions or his conclusions.  Indeed, “Tea Party Tailspin” amounts to a serious misunderstanding of both the poll data as well as the danger to human rights.

In IREHR’s 96-page report, Tea Party Nationalism: A Critical Examination of the Tea Party Movement and the Size, Scope and Focus of its National Factions, we delineated three levels of commitment towards the Tea Parties.  At the outermost ring are the tens of millions of sympathizers–those most often discussed in public opinion polls.  Next level are the active supporters who attend meetings, donate money, and read the literature.  At the center are the enrolled members of the six national factions, the hard core of the movement.

At the current time, the core membership of the national factions continues to grow. IREHR took its first measure of the Tea Parties enrolled membership about one year ago, and we counted 162,222.  Last August that number was about 250,000.  And in our most recent count, conducted just days ago, there were 318,916 enrolled members.  That is straight-line growth at the core of the Tea Party movement.

During the November election, both ABC News and CNN reported that exit polls showed that four in every ten voters were Tea Party sympathizers. [3]  As a result, Tea Party influence on Capitol Hill has gone up after the 2010 elections.  The number of Tea Party Caucus members in the House now stands at 53, and there is now a caucus in the Senate with four members.  (Prior to the election, there were 52 members in the House, and none in the Senate.) It is no secret that these Tea Partiers are often at odds with the Republican Party establishment, even as Republican regulars try and co-opt the Tea Partiers into the party’s mainline ranks.

The current situation exists because this movement turned the corner from mass protests in the street during 2009 to voter mobilization in 2010.  After the election the movement has shifted gears again, and now focuses more on local and state-level politics.  While these changes in direction are not completely uniform (remember this is a movement not a single-minded organization), they do reflect the fact that Tea Party groups are largely motivated by a constellation of political ideas.  While these ideas are often in competition with each other, the “anger” described by Mr. Blow plays a subordinate role.

The March 3 Pew Study

Reading of the polling questions of the Pew study from which Mr. Blow said he drew his conclusions shows that this survey was not meant to be a gauge of Tea Party attitudes. On many of the issues explored in this survey, Pew fails to isolate Tea Party supporters.  As a result, this poll is useless as a gauge of Tea Party opinion on issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, and unions.  Nevertheless, there are some interesting and useful pieces of data in this poll.  For example, while it showed a nine point drop in the percentage of Americans who are “angry” with the federal government, it also showed a seven point increase in those who said they were “frustrated with government” — up from 52 to 59% between Sept 2010 and March 2011. [4] Further on the question of “anger,” the poll showed that, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who agree with the Tea Party are more likely to express anger with the federal government than those who disagree or have no opinion of the Tea Party (30% vs. 9%).”[5]  Similar numbers showed up last year.

This poll also noted that “Tea Party supporters remain overwhelmingly distrustful of the government in Washington. Only 14% trust the government at least most of the time while 85% say they trust the government only some of the time or never.”   It also found that Tea Party supporters were more likely than Republicans generally to want a candidate to “Stick to positions.””  In other words, Tea Partiers do not put much value in compromise.[7]

This poll included just one question aimed at measuring the general level of support for the Tea Party movement among adult Americans: “From what you know, do you agree with the Tea Party movement, or don’t you have an opinion either way?”[8] The data on this point is interesting, particularly when compared to the data on the same question one year ago.  In March 2010, 24% of poll respondents said they agreed with the Tea Party movement; 14% said they disagreed; and 29% said they had no opinion either way.  When asked the same question in 2011, the number of those who said they agreed with the Tea Parties fell four points to 20% and the number who disagreed rose 11 points to 25%.

Before we further discuss the meaning of these changes, it is useful to compare the March 2011 Pew poll results with a February 2011 survey taken by The Harris Poll.  In that poll, the number of those who “support” (somewhat support and strong support added together) was 37%–17 points higher than the Pew poll.  In the Harris poll, the number who opposed the Tea Parties was 38%–13 points higher than the Pew poll.[9]

Since Pew data tends to differ from Harris data generally, the point spread between the two polls is probably not related to some kind of huge one month slide.  Instead, the differences between the two different data sets may be more related to the vagaries inherent in public opinion polling: the size of the polling sample can skew the data (Pew surveyed 1,009 adults by phone, Harris surveyed 3,171 adults via computer),  discrepancies in the surrounding questions, and the way questions are asked.

There are some similarities, however, in what Pew and Harris found.  In both instances there was a measurable increase in the level of opposition to the Tea Party movement and a small but noticeable drop in the level of support.  While it is too soon to be certain in our conclusions, the increase in opposition may be related to the fact that more people are now talking about the birthers, racists and bigots in Tea Party ranks.  And the drop in support from the movement’s perimeter could be related to a form of “buyers’ remorse,” where those who voted for the Tea Party-supported candidates last fall now understand the wreckage that they have produced as governing officials.  While it is entirely too soon to come to any firm conclusion about what is happening on the Tea Party movement’s perimeter, we do know that the “tailspin” theory is flat wrong.  Otherwise, we need more data.

Finally, you need to look no further than the Tea Parties’ attack on birthright citizenship and the 14th Amendment in California, and the attacks on trade unions in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and elsewhere to know that the “no compromise” politics of the Tea Parties will drive the United States of America into the ditch.

Tea Party members should be happy right now.  You and I should be angry.


1. Charles Blow, “Tea Party Tailspin,” The New York Times, March 5, 2011.

2. The Pew Research Center For People & The Press, “Fewer Are Angry at Government, But Discontent Remains High,” March 3, 2011.

3. Gary Langer, “2010 Elections Exit Poll Analysis: The Political Price of Economic Pain,” ABC News, November 3, 2010,…”

4. “Fewer Are Angry,” p.1.

5. “Fewer Are Angry,” p. 6.

6. “Fewer Are Angry,” p. 8.

7. “Fewer Are Angry,” p. 13.

8. “Fewer Are Angry,” p. 32; it should be noted that Mr. Blow did not refer to the data on this pint when he wrote that the Tea Parties were “losing momentum.”

9. “Tea Party Support Declines Somewhat,” The Harris Poll, PR Newswire, March 8, 2011



Leonard Zeskind

Author Leonard Zeskind

is founder of IREHR. For almost four decades, he has been a leading authority on white nationalist political and social movements. He is the author of Blood and Politics: The History of White Nationalism from the Margins to the Mainstream, published by Farrar Straus & Giroux in May 2009. [more..]

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