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Response to Chait and Yglesias on the Times’ Tea Party Poll

John on April 16, 2010 at 11:21 am

Jonathan Chait has some observations and conclusions about the tea parties based primarily on this NY Times poll:

The New York Times poll of the movement finds that people sympathetic to the Tea Party movement, aside from being generally conservative, are far more likely than the general public to believe that “too much has been made of the problems facing black people.” (52% of Tea Party sympathizers say this, compared with 28% of the public as a whole.)

Relying on Matt Yglesias, Chait adds that this is in keeping with research which suggests that “ethnocentrism” leads some whites to very specific policy positions:

[W]hites with ethnocentric attitudes are more hostile toward means-tested government programs [welfare], which they clearly see as benefiting other, non-white people. Meanwhile, ethnocentric whites are more likely than non-ethnocentric whites to support social insurance programs like Medicare and Social Security.

Let’s assume the research on this is correct and that the Times’ poll is sound. If so, then we should find that Tea Partiers are against welfare but support big social programs. Do the theory and the poll line up? Not really.

Chait and Yglesias jump right over the evidence in the poll and point to some “exit interviews” that suggest Tea Partiers would rather focus on cutting waste than cutting Social Security or Medicare. That’s fine, but not really part of the poll proper. Question 22 asks tea partiers if they prefered smaller or larger government. Not suprisingly, 92% said smaller. Of those who so answered the follow up question asked:

Suppose a smaller government required cuts in spending on domestic programs such as Social Security, Medicare, education or defense — then would you favor a smaller government or not?

73% of Tea Party respondents said yes vs. just 58% of Americans. So it seems that 3/4 of the tea party people are willing to cut big social programs in order to reduce the size and scope of government. In fact, they are much more likely to say so than the general public.

It may well be true that, as individuals, they are happy to receive the checks which they did in fact pay into much of their lives. You can call that hypocrisy if you want, but it remains true that at least on principle they are open to reducing these programs. Since the ethnocentrism research Chait and Yglesias rely on suggests that ethnocentrics will favor these programs–not just getting the checks for themselves, but conceptually for everyone–there is a mismatch here. Something doesn’t fit.

Secondly, the poll indicates that one of the specific policies driving the Tea Party anger at government is health reform. Tea Partiers are against it. So the obvious question is for Chait’s theory is this…Does health reform represent a new entitlement (which ethnocentrics should support) or a means tested welfare program (which they should oppose)?

Clearly it’s the former more than the latter. The whole push for reform was “universal care.” There was even a moment when the Congress sought to replace the public option with a Medicare extension. There is some means testing in the program but no one is excluded. If Chait and Yglesias are right about Tea Partiers being “ethnocentric” then we should see them supporting ObamaCare. In fact, we see just the opposite, all of which suggests to me that the data and the theory don’t line up as they claim.

There is another group noted in the social science results Chait and Yglesias mentioned (see the book here), those who support “limited government.” Limited government types support cuts in welfare spending and, to a lesser degree, in social insurance programs. This not only fits with the actual profile of the Tea Party presented in the poll questions mentioned above, but with responses to other questions in the poll.

For instance, 62% of Tea Partiers have read “a lot” about the federal deficit compared to just 30% of Americans (Q#26). Then there’s question #43, Do you think Obama has expanded the roll of government? 89% of Tea Partiers said “too much” vs. 37% of Americans. Do you think Obama is moving the country toward socialism (#49)? 92% said yes vs. 52% of Americans. There are many more, all of which seems to support an interest in limited government or, put another way, a concern about out of control government.

Some questions, like #52 which shows that 25% of Tea Partiers believe Obama favors blacks over whites (vs. 11% of Americans) suggest some level of ethnocentrism. But even here, 74% say the administration treats the races the same or doesn’t know. In effect, Tea Partiers are 14% more likely to see blacks favored over the general public. That’s not insignificant but it’s also not an overwhelming shift like the responses to the scope of government questions above.

Ethnocentrism probably exists to some degree within the Tea Party but it is not the hidden hand that Chait and Yglesias seem to think it is. It seems more likely, based on the data at hand, that a genuine concern for out of control government is driving the movement.

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