Sunday, April 18, 2010

Who the Heck ARE These People?

Latest Newspaper Column:
I'm going to start this week's column with a promise made to my new friend and fellow Pilot columnist Geoff Cutler, who requested (politely) that I no longer use the word "teabagger" to refer to members of the so-called "tea party" movement.

As some of you may know, the term "teabagging" has a number of meanings, at least one of them obscene. Even though some of the things I've been called by these people are worse, Geoff did, as I say, ask nicely. So I will refrain from now on.

Which still leaves us with the question: Who the heck are these people, anyway? Recent surveys of the movement provide some enlightenment, but only some.

While the "tea" in "tea party" supposedly stands for "Taxed Enough Already," 52 percent of the self-identified tea partiers questioned in a recent CBS/New York Times poll said they thought their taxes are fair. At the same time, 64 percent believe that the president has increased taxes for most Americans, despite the fact that the vast majority of Americans got a tax cut under the Obama administration.

In fact, Congress cut individuals' federal taxes for this year by about $173 billion shortly after President Obama took office, according to an April 15 story by The Associated Press. Sixty-six percent of these folks have a favorable opinion of Sarah Palin, yet only 40 percent feel she'd be an effective president - less than the percentage of Republicans who feel that way.

A recent Bloomberg poll found that 90 percent of tea party supporters felt the government was too big and had too much control, while 70 percent of people in the same poll thought the federal government should do more to create jobs, and almost half thought it should control executive bonuses. And of those answering the CBS/NYT poll, 62 percent say big government programs like Social Security and Medicare are "worth the costs to taxpayers."

Thus, we have the famous "keep the government's hands off my Medicare!" attitude. Or, as one interviewee put it, "I guess I want smaller government and my Social Security."

Two statistics that should shock no one - 89 percent of tea partiers are white and 75 percent are over age 45, with 29 percent over 65.

While they may not have a particularly coherent set of beliefs, and the beliefs they do seem to hold aren't particularly grounded in reality, one thing's for sure: These folks certainly are mad. Fifty-three percent of tea party supporters describe themselves as "angry" about the way things are going in Washington, compared with 19 percent of Americans overall who say they are angry.

As I've mentioned before, I remember back a few years ago when "angry" was regarded as a very bad thing to be in politics. I even found a particularly ironic quote from the period, by conservative pundit Thomas Sowell.

"For many on the left," Sowell tut-tutted, "indignation is not a sometime thing. It is a way of life. How often have you seen conservatives or libertarians take to the streets, shouting angry slogans?" (Well, Thomas, quite a bit these days.) Sowell went on: "The source of the anger of liberals, 'progressives' or radicals is by no means readily apparent. The targets of their anger have included people who are nonconfrontational or even genial, such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush."

It would be hard to find someone less confrontational and more genial than Barack Obama. And yet tea partiers are carrying signs with him portrayed as the Joker from Batman and even Hitler. What goes around, it seems, has come around. The tea partiers have become that which they once despised.

Here's the kicker: While 84 percent of tea partiers feel that their beliefs are shared by most Americans, only 25 percent of Americans polled say the tea party movement reflects their beliefs.

So who, then, are the tea partiers? They're old, white, ideologically incoherent, angry, out of touch with the mainstream, and deluded about their actual influence. In many ways (except perhaps for their median age), they remind me of the left. The actual left, I mean, not the centrists who actually run the Democratic party in the real world. The actual leftists were screaming "kill the bill!" right along with the tea partiers, because they saw it as a sell-out to the insurance industry.

But "angry as a way of life" hasn't worked out too well for either the right or the left, has it?