While some surveys show support for the Tea Party is waning, a recent Gallup poll found the movement “remains a powerful force, given their higher interest in the election, and higher motivation to vote.” It reports 73 percent of self-described Tea Party Republicans are highly motivated to vote in next week’s mid-terms—a figure far higher than that for Democrats or mainstream Republicans.
So what drives these voters, who will clearly have a disproportionate influence on next week’s election results? A new analysis comes up with a not-pretty answer: Racial resentment.
“At least to some degree, the Tea Party movement is an outlet for mobilizing and expressing racialized grievances which have been symbolically magnified by the election of the nation’s first black president,” writes a research team led by Florida State University sociologist Daniel Tope.
"The findings suggest that, among conservatives, racial resentment may be a more important determinate of membership in the Tea Party movement than hard-right political values."
The study, just published in the journal Social Science Research, finds this acrimony appears to be aimed specifically at blacks rather than also targeting Latinos. While that’s somewhat surprising, “The findings suggest that, among conservatives, racial resentment may be a more important determinate of membership in the Tea Party movement than hard-right political values.”
Tope and his colleagues analyze the results of a telephone survey of 961 American adults, which was taken in 2010. “Our study focuses on self-reported Tea Party movement membership rather than the more commonly assessed ‘support for’ or ‘agreement with’ the movement,” they note, “because self-identification as a member implies a greater degree of commitment to, and investment in, Tea Party movement ideals.”
Respondents were asked, “Do you consider yourself a member of the Tea Party?” Approximately 12 percent answered yes. This is roughly in line with Gallup’s findings that 11 percent of Americans are “strong supporters” of the movement, with another 13 expressing moderate support.
Racial resentment was measured by responses to five statements. Respondents indicated whether they agreed or disagreed with such assertions as “Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class” and “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well-off as whites.”
The perceived threat posed by Latinos was measured in a separate series of statements. Respondents indicated on a one-to-five scale their level of agreement with such assertions as “Latinos take away economic resources that should go to others, like jobs and welfare” and “Too many Latinos will vote in upcoming elections.”
In addition, respondents indicated their political ideology on a one-to-five scale (very liberal to very conservative), provided basic demographic information, and answered the question “What is the most important problem facing our country today?”
Not surprisingly, those who responded with some variation of the term “government,” such as “big government” or “government spending,” were far more likely than others to be members of the Tea Party. So were those who called themselves very conservative.
But the researchers found racial resentment was a “distinct factor” driving membership, one which was “largely independent” from ideological concerns. “Conservatives who were more racially resentful were substantially more likely to claim Tea Party movement membership,” they write.
“The minority of conservatives who consider themselves to be Tea Party movement members tend to be more racially resentful, white, male, less-educated, and live in counties that have experienced recent black population growth,” the researchers report. “Individuals were more likely to claim Tea Party movement membership if they resided where the black population expanded.”
However, Tope and his colleagues “did not find a relationship between threat and Tea Party movement membership in relation to individuals’ subjective judgments about Latino threat, or residence in jurisdictions with growing Latino populations.”
Given the heated rhetoric in recent years about illegal immigration from Latin America, this is something of a surprise. It suggests that, at least as of 2010, old-fashioned hostility toward blacks was a stronger motivating force for Tea Party members than fear of Latino influence on American culture.
Whether that is still true, or will remain true in coming years, is an open question.