Misreading the tea leaves

The liberal analysis of Tea Party attendees continues, but one gets the impression that all the analysts, experts and pollsters want to do is reassure themselves and their friends of their own intellectual and moral superiority.

At first many, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), dismissed the new activists as tools of special interests who were being sent to meetings and rallies by pharmaceutical and insurance companies intent upon derailing the Democratic healthcare plan.

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When that didn’t fly and the Tea Parties continued, pundits suggested that they were but a passing phenomenon. Last week’s gatherings demonstrated that hasn’t happened. More and more people are attending the Tea Parties today than last year and many have apparently never been involved in politics before.

Tea Party attendees haven’t even been deterred by continual attempts to brand the gatherings as extremist, racist affairs that no “respectable” citizen would be caught dead attending.

Now comes a series of “serious” poll-based attempts to dismiss the Tea Partiers through analysis. The New York Times last week led this effort with an in-depth analysis that questioned the legitimacy of the Tea Party phenomena because those attending the events aren’t poor enough or educationally deprived. What’s worse is the fact that many of them actually have jobs and haven’t (yet) been driven from their homes. The paper even headlined its wrap-up story on the results: “Doing Fine, but Angry Nonetheless.”

What right, wonder the Times analysts, do such folks have to be so upset or so worried about the future of the country? And worried they are. Some 92 percent of those Tea Partiers polled by the Times believe the country is on the wrong track. Seeking an explanation, the Times analysts asked leftist “experts” on the rise of the right in America what is going on and received predictable answers. The Tea Partiers, according to people like Rick Perlstein, are just the latest surfacing of the old McCarthyite racist cranks whom he believes rallied around Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Reagan later — potentially dangerous cranks one would be wise to keep an eye on, but nothing new.

Perlstein, the author of two books explaining the rise of conservatism from a decidedly left-wing perspective, suggests this is but another outbreak of the “old” conservative fear that America is being run by people who don’t share “their” values and is, in Perlstein’s words, being “polluted” and has to be taken back. Thus the Tea Party message, fears and concerns are, in the minds of the experts the Times consults, essentially irrational.

And thus the Tea Partiers can be dismissed as politically delusional without any real attempt to discuss the questions of whether their fears are based on fact or are shared by any statistically relevant majority. The questions, for example, of whether government is overreaching or spending is out of control don’t have to be examined seriously if they are raised only by Chicken Little types or cranks who have been complaining about such things forever, cranks who shouldn’t be taken seriously.

The Times poll is interesting, but might have been more enlightening had it been analyzed in conjunction with a poll like the George Washington University “Battleground” survey of likely voters also released last week.

That poll shows that mainstream Americans are deeply concerned about the very same trends that trouble the Tea Partiers and suggests, in fact, that those attending the Tea Parties have far more in common with the average American voter than do the experts on whom the Times relies.

These pollsters found that 72 percent of voters are “extremely or very concerned” about the federal government’s current level of spending and debt. That is a figure that should astound anyone who has followed polls over the years. It reflects the feelings of millions of Americans, not just a few conservative “cranks” who have been concerned about runaway spending for years.

The fact is, of course, that millions of Americans today are afraid that we are indeed off on the wrong track, that elected officials don’t share their values and that they have to “take America back.” That’s why congressional approval levels are at an all-time low, the president’s poll ratings are tanking, a plurality of Americans want his healthcare program repealed and pundits are suggesting that he and his party may face a political tsunami in November.

When it’s over, perhaps the Times will simply wonder if we haven’t simply become a nation of cranks.

Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental
consulting firm.