First of all: Cudos to the New York Times for releasing the tables behind the “tea partier” story. As Laura McKenna has pointed out, there is a problem with the way the article compares all voters and tea party-activists – political activists should have been included in the comparison.
Still, we are dealing with something which looks like a middle-class rebellion: Angry, middle-class, middle-aged white men, to be more specific. My hunch was that linking the tea partiers to the stagnation (if not decline) in median incomes might give some insight into the nature of the tea party-movement – the thing is, that we may have seen similar dynamics on this side of the Atlantic. (What? The Americans react like Europeans? Scary, no?).
Things, however, seem to be a bit more complicated.
Let me steal the words of Heather Boushey of Slate:
The data instead show that Tea Party supporters are in the group of Americans adversely affected by the hollowing out of the middle class in the last few decades.
Given that their labor market experience, education, race, and gender should give Tea Party supporters an economic advantage—as well as an internal sense that they should be moving up the ladder—their actual middle-class status may make them feel as if they haven’t lived up to their expectations. Certainly, economic security has eroded, especially in the last few years, for this demographic. White men in particular are one of the few groups to have hit all-time-record-high unemployment rates and record-low employment rates during the Great Recession, alongside teens and older workers.
The picture that emerges, then, is more like what you’d expect. The Tea Party is made up of more-traditional middle-class families who had a certain expectation of upward progress. Over the last decade or so, they’ve gotten stuck. Even before the recession, the 2000s were the first economic recovery in the post World War II era during which median family income was lower at the end than it had been at the prior economic peak, in this case, 2000. That’s a stunning lack of gains for the typical American family.
Now, we are not dealing with losers in the traditional sense here – no low-skilled industrial workers losing their jobs to the Chinese – but rather the disappointed middle class. (There still is a clear majority of men among partiers, though.) In a warped way, they are closer to the strata which were behind the left-wing mobilisations of the 1960s and 1970s in Western Europe – except that these groups tended to be public employees. But still, the realisation that the affluence engine of the 1950s and 1960s has finally stopped working like it used to puts the political system under some kind of pressure. The massive lack of confidence in not only the present US administration but also US political institutions is notable. (Just as it is notable that the partiers find it harder to blame the financial sector).
When you go through the tables, it is obvious (at least to me) that the tea party equations do not add up on a number of points – specifically, the tea partiers cannot, or will not, understand the effects of Bush 43’s (and the Republican Party’s) fiscal and tax policies on the US economy and federal budget. Somehow, ideology must play a role here. As a whole, the tea partiers (conveniently?) seem to forget that the Republican Party controlled the US congress between 1995 and 2007. Perhaps the dream of 1994 lingers on?
On the other hand, we are not dealing with gun-toting fundamentalist rednecks. Yes, the partiers are generally more conservative/authoritarian on social issues (in the US meaning of the term) but they are hardly extremist. Yes, they adore Sarah Palin, but they do not think she would make an effective president of the US (which means that the partiers can make the distinction between expression and policy craft).
But somehow this looks like we are dealing with the fallout from the New Economy and the Great Moderation of the later decades. Just to exaggerate a bit: Obama is more of a traditional Democrat – industrial workers, trade unions, Mid-West, etc. – so it is perhaps not so surprising that he doesn’t click with the partiers. And similarly, the partiers’ priority of jobs as the main problem fits badly with the Obama administrations (public) focus on health care.