Given how much sway the Tea Party has among Republicans in Congress and
those seeking the Republican presidential nomination, one might think
the Tea Party is redefining mainstream American politics.
But in fact the Tea Party is increasingly swimming against the tide of
public opinion: among most Americans, even before the furor over the
debt limit, its brand was becoming toxic. To embrace the Tea Party
carries great political risk for Republicans, but perhaps not for the
reason you might think.
Polls show that disapproval of the Tea Party is climbing. In April 2010,
a New York Times/CBS News survey found that 18 percent of Americans had
an unfavorable opinion of it, 21 percent had a favorable opinion and 46
percent had not heard enough. Now, 14 months later, Tea Party supporters have slipped to 20 percent, while their opponents have more than doubled, to 40 percent.
Of course, politicians of all stripes are not faring well among the
public these days. But in data we have recently collected, the Tea Party
ranks lower than any of the 23 other groups we asked about—lower than
both Republicans and Democrats. It is even less popular than much
maligned groups like “atheists” and “Muslims.” Interestingly, one group
that approaches it in unpopularity is the Christian Right.
The strange thing is that over the last five years, Americans have moved
in an economically conservative direction: they are more likely to
favor smaller government, to oppose redistribution of income and to
favor private charities over government to aid the poor. While none of
these opinions are held by a majority of Americans, the trends would
seem to favor the Tea Party. So why are its negatives so high? To find
out, we need to examine what kinds of people actually support it.
Beginning in 2006 we interviewed a representative sample of 3,000
Americans as part of our continuing research into national political
attitudes, and we returned to interview many of the same people again
this summer. As a result, we can look at what people told us, long
before there was a Tea Party, to predict who would become a Tea Party
supporter five years later. We can also account for multiple influences
simultaneously—isolating the impact of one factor while holding others
Our analysis casts doubt on the Tea Party’s “origin story.” Early on,
Tea Partiers were often described as nonpartisan political neophytes.
Actually, the Tea Party’s supporters today were highly partisan
Republicans long before the Tea Party was born, and were more likely
than others to have contacted government officials. In fact, past
Republican affiliation is the single strongest predictor of Tea Party
What’s more, contrary to some accounts, the Tea Party is not a creature
of the Great Recession. Many Americans have suffered in the last four
years, but they are no more likely than anyone else to support the Tea
Party. And while the public image of the Tea Party focuses on a desire
to shrink government, concern over big government is hardly the only or
even the most important predictor of Tea Party support among voters.
So what do Tea Partiers have in common? They are overwhelmingly white,
but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for
immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they
More important, they were disproportionately social conservatives in
2006—opposing abortion, for example—and still are today. Next to
being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party
supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a
prominent role in politics. And Tea Partiers continue to hold these
views: they seek “deeply religious” elected officials, approve of
religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into
political debates. The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding
concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are
more concerned about putting God in government.
This inclination among the Tea Party faithful to mix religion and
politics explains their support for Representative Michele Bachmann of
Minnesota and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. Their appeal to Tea Partiers
lies less in what they say about the budget or taxes, and more in their
overt use of religious language and imagery, including Mrs. Bachmann’s
lengthy prayers at campaign stops and Mr. Perry’s prayer rally in
Yet it is precisely this infusion of religion into politics that most
Americans increasingly oppose. While over the last five years Americans
have become slightly more conservative economically, they have swung
even further in opposition to mingling religion and politics. It thus
makes sense that the Tea Party ranks alongside the Christian Right in
On everything but the size of government, Tea Party supporters are
increasingly out of step with most Americans, even many Republicans.
Indeed, at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, today’s Tea
Party parallels the anti-Vietnam War movement which rallied behind
George S. McGovern in 1972. The McGovernite activists brought energy,
but also stridency, to the Democratic Party—repelling moderate voters
and damaging the Democratic brand for a generation. By embracing the Tea
Party, Republicans risk repeating history.
American Grace is a major achievement, a fascinating look at
religion in today’s America. Unique among nations, America is deeply
religious, religiously diverse and remarkably tolerant. But in recent
decades, the nation’s religious landscape has been reshaped.
America has experienced three seismic shocks, say Robert Putnam and
David Campbell. In the 1960s religious observance plummeted. Then, in
the 1970s and 1980s a conservative reaction produced the rise of
evangelicalism and the Religious Right. Since the 1990s, however, young
people, turned off by that linkage between faith and conservative
politics, have abandoned organized religion entirely. The result:
growing polarization. The ranks of religious conservatives and secular
liberals have swelled, leaving a dwindling group of religious moderates
in between. At the same time, personal interfaith ties are
strengthening. Interfaith marriage has increased, while religious
identities are increasingly fluid. Putnam and Campbell show how this
denser web of personal ties brings surprising interfaith tolerance,
notwithstanding the so-called “culture wars.”
American Grace is based on two of the most comprehensive
surveys ever conducted on religion and public life in America. It
includes a dozen in-depth profiles of diverse congregations across the
country, which illuminate the trends described by Putnam and Campbell in
the lives of real Americans.
Nearly every chapter of American Grace contains a surprise about American religious life.