Thursday, August 18, 2011

Tea Party less popular than atheists?

That's what David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam claim in this column in The New York Times, that the Tea Party is even less popular than much maligned groups like “atheists” and “Muslims.”

Here's an excerpt:
Polls show that disapproval of the Tea Party is climbing. In April 2010, a New York Times/CBS News survey found that 18 percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of it, 21 percent had a favorable opinion and 46 percent had not heard enough. Now, 14 months later, Tea Party supporters have slipped to 20 percent, while their opponents have more than doubled, to 40 percent.

Of course, politicians of all stripes are not faring well among the public these days. But in data we have recently collected, the Tea Party 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.

That link leads to this article about the latest New York Times and CBS News poll. And the full results from that are here. That backs up the 20% favorable to 40% unfavorable response to the Tea Party (with the rest undecided or, basically, "don't know"), but it doesn't appear to have asked about atheists. (Of course, these two authors don't claim that it did. They just say "in data we have recently collected.")

However, the NY Times/CBS poll did ask about religion, and a whopping 19% answered "none." That's encouraging, don't you think? Indeed, although that's considerably less than "Protestant" at 50%, it's the same percentage as answered "Catholic." And it's far above "Jewish" (1%), "Muslim" (1%), and "Other" (6%). Another 4% replied with "don't know" or "not applicable," apparently. (I don't know what that's about.)

But let's go back to the original column:
Beginning in 2006 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. We can also account for multiple influences simultaneously — isolating the impact of one factor while holding others constant.

Our analysis casts doubt on the Tea Party’s “origin story.” Early on, Tea Partiers were often described as nonpartisan political neophytes. Actually, the Tea Party’s supporters today were highly partisan Republicans long before the Tea Party was born, and were more likely than others to have contacted government officials. In fact, past Republican affiliation is the single strongest predictor of Tea Party support today. [my emphasis] ...

So what do Tea Partiers have in common? They are overwhelmingly white, but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do.

More important, they were disproportionately social conservatives in 2006 — opposing abortion, for example — and still are today. 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. [again, my emphasis, since it's clear these are the same people who gave us George W. Bush]

This inclination among the Tea Party faithful to mix religion and politics explains their support for Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. Their appeal to Tea Partiers lies less in what they say about the budget or taxes, and more in their overt use of religious language and imagery, including Mrs. Bachmann’s lengthy prayers at campaign stops and Mr. Perry’s prayer rally in Houston.

Yet it is precisely this infusion of religion into politics that most Americans increasingly oppose. While over the last five years Americans have become slightly more conservative economically, they have swung even further in opposition to mingling religion and politics. It thus makes sense that the Tea Party ranks alongside the Christian Right in unpopularity.

Encouraging, isn't it? Oh, not that Americans have become "slightly more conservative economically," of course. In fact, considering the disaster the right-wing has made of things in recent years, that we're actually more conservative now is hard to imagine. I mean, what would it take to discredit right-wing economic policy, if that hasn't?

But if we've moved even further in opposition to "mingling religion and politics," I guess I'll take that tradeoff and be quite pleased about it. I mean, if the Tea Party and the Christian Right are really that unpopular? You bet!

However, this is so very close to what I really want to believe that I'm going to remain a bit skeptical. No, I don't want to be depressed. But I'm not going to believe what two guys write in a newspaper just because I'd really, really like to believe it, either. I need more evidence than this.

So let's just view this as interesting and, yes, encouraging. The fact is, we need some encouragement. If we're discouraged and hopeless, we're all too likely to be apathetic. And in a democracy, that's disastrous. So if you can work up a little enthusiasm about this, that's not a bad thing at all.

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