Misreading the Tea Leaves

Analyzing the burgeoning Tea Party movement has become something of an obsession on the left, but unfortunately I think that many of us are misreading the nature of the movement. At last week's Young Democratic Socialists conference in New York, numerous speakers made reference to the teabaggers, usually to either denounce them as a nascent fascist movement or to characterize them as representative of the political and economic frustrations of the downwardly mobile white working class. Related to this second point was the frequently invoked corollary that many of the teabaggers could have been footsoldiers of the left if only we had gotten to them before the astroturf outfits of the right set visions of Obamunism dancing in their heads.

But recent reportage and polling on the teabaggers seems to point out that this analysis doesn't have much of a basis in reality at all.

A few weeks back, CNN released the results of a poll that shows that Tea Party activists and sympathizers are largely drawn from the ranks of the upper middle class. Almost three quarters of the teabaggers have attended college compared with 54 percent of all Americans, and 66% reported annual incomes of $50,000 or above. The largest income group among teabaggers were people making $75,000 or more. The only demographic characteristics that jibe with many leftists' perceptions of the teabaggers is that they tend to be rural or suburban white males.

And if journalistic accounts of Tea Party activism are to be believed, the teabaggers are far from a fascist horde itching to set crosses ablaze. If anything, it seems that they tend to be social moderates who are much more interested in pushing a libertarian economic program than anything else. According to a New York Times report on the ideological proclivities of the teabaggers,

when the Sam Adams Alliance, a Tea Party-friendly conservative organization in Chicago, surveyed 50 leaders of the movement about the most important direction for the movement, none selected social issues. Most said “budget” or “economy/jobs.”

Needless to say, I don't think the left has much to offer upper middle class white guys who mostly want to cut taxes, balance budgets, and destroy the last vestiges of the welfare state. The Tea Party ranks don't seem to be a very fertile ground for left organizing, and anyone who thinks the teabaggers can be brought over to our side is engaging in wishful thinking. Let them have their little party. It's not one I'd like to be invited to anyway.

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