04.15.10

At Last, the Truth About Tea Partiers

The New York Times poll forces the mainstream media to admit it: They’ve been building a story line about this grassroots movement based on their prejudices, not the facts.

The New York Times poll forces the mainstream media to admit it: They’ve been building a story line about this grassroots movement based on their prejudices, not the facts. PLUS, Benjamin Sarlin’s dispatch from the Tea Party Express.

The Tea Party movement is beyond the pale no more.

It is now safe for metropolitan Americans to say—without fear of pillory, or of being waved away as wing-nuts—that the Tea Partiers are not a bilious, lunatic, unschooled, racist rabble out to sabotage our first African-American president, but are, instead, passionate, educated, middle-aged, middle-class and relatively prosperous critics of the Obama administration.

Permission to cease fire, and to refrain from abuse, has been granted by The New York Times, which—over a year after the Tea Party movement began to make its distinctive imprint on American politics—has finally mustered the decency to put aside its reflexive distaste for the movement, and bestirred itself to enquire ( by way of a poll) into the precise demography and ideology of Tea Partiers.

Their portrayal as intolerant racists allowed the media to send Tea Partiers to political coventry, to confer on them the status of picturesque (yet repulsive) pariahs.

Responsible journalism would have dictated, of course, that the Times embark on an objective parsing of this nationwide discontent a long time ago. Instead, until now, that newspaper mostly gave us a series of impressions and reports designed to inflame the prejudices of its own (largely pro-Obama) readership. The most egregious example of this was a piece by David Barstow, which weighed in at four-and-a-half thousand words—and was titled “Tea Party Lights Fuse for Rebellion on Right”—and which spun the movement as one comprised of “birthers,” militias, John Birch Society types, and the like. (For a critique of the Barstow piece, read Andrew Ferguson, in Commentary.) Also, the Barstow piece led David Letterman to have Pam Stout (a woman he mentioned in the first paragraph of his story) on his show, and she turned out to be entirely reasonable. The videos are here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Peter Beinart: The Tea Party’s Phony PopulismOther news outlets, such as CNN, have been just as predisposed to disparage the Tea Party movement—until now. Proof that the mainstream media has begun to kick the habit came, most clearly, earlier this month when the estimable Shannon Travis offered, in a “Reporter’s Notebook,” an account of “ What Really Happens at Tea Party Rallies.” The first four paragraphs of his piece deserve to be quoted in full, as a de facto confession that coverage of the story has, to date, been biased:

“When it comes to the Tea Party movement, the stereotypes don't tell the whole story. Here's what you often see in the coverage of Tea Party rallies: offensive posters blasting President Obama and Democratic leaders; racist rhetoric spewed from what seems to be a largely white, male audience; and angry protesters rallying around the Constitution.

Case in point: During the health-care debate last month, opponents shouted racial slurs at civil-rights icon Georgia Rep. John Lewis and one person spit on Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver. The incidents made national headlines, and they provided Tea Party opponents with fodder to question the movement.

But here's what you don't often see in the coverage of Tea Party rallies: Patriotic signs professing a love for country; mothers and fathers with their children; African Americans proudly participating; and senior citizens bopping to a hip-hop rapper.”

Readers should note that the allegations that racial slurs were directed at Rep. Lewis have never been proved, as the irrepressible James Taranto writes in The Wall Street Journal. Yet the charges have stuck in the metropolitan consciousness, largely because they accord with the narrative of the Tea Party that has been peddled so far by the mainstream media: to wit, that it is a racist movement whose animus against Obama is fueled not by his politics, but by his blackness. Such a distortion of the movement’s defining temper was necessary in order to render its members unworthy of polite company; their portrayal as intolerant racists allowed the media to send Tea Partiers to political coventry, to confer on them the status of picturesque (yet repulsive) pariahs. Opponents were transformed, by cultural diktat, into “wing-nuts.” Ideological passion came to be seen, with a certain elitist aesthetic distaste, as “anger.” And the movement’s emphatic brand of libertarian-conservative politics was belittled as of the “fringe.”

This distortion-by-hyperbole could not be sustained forever. Facts have an inconvenient way of asserting themselves in a democracy as raucous as ours; and facts, in the end, catch up with even the greatest of newspapers. And so it came to pass that the Times took a closer look at the men and women who comprise the Tea Party movement. And what do you know: 37 percent have college or postgraduate degrees (compared with the national adult average of 25 percent), and 20 percent have a household income greater than $100,000 (compared with a national average of 14 percent).

What’s more, 75 percent are older than 45, suggesting that Tea Partiers are not unthinking hotheads, but have had many years’ experience of national politics—and, inevitably, a fond memory of an America that wasn’t so steeped in entitlements. Maybe that’s why they oppose Obamacare with such eye-catching vim.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)