The tea party dichotomy

at 12:37 PM ET, 04/29/2011


A tea party supporter speaks her mind at a Tea Party tax day rally in New Hampshire two weeks ago. While the public has been appreciative of how the tea party has affected American politics, the movement is more unpopular than it has ever been. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
The tea party is having its time in the spotlight during the current budget battles, but is it wearing out its welcome?

Recent polling shows the American people generally think the tea party has had a good influence on American politics, but that doesn’t mean that they identify with it or even like it.

A CNN/Opinion Research poll earlier this month showed that 50 percent of people said the tea party had had a positive influence on American politics, versus 43 percent who said it had a negative one.

But a new Gallup poll two weeks later shows support for the tea party dropping to a new low, with just 33 percent viewing it favorably and its unfavorable rating rising to a new high, 47 percent. (The numbers echo what CNN/Opinion Research and a Washington Post-ABC News poll found in March.)

It’s the latest example of the American public not quite knowing what to make of the amorphous movement. But it also says something larger about the role of political movements — and political parties, which the tea party claims it isn’t — in American politics.

The fact that Americans don’t necessarily like the tea party but think it has done some good is actually quite normal.

Even as Republicans gained dozens and dozens of seats in 2010, the party’s favorable ratings weren’t great, with the public actually pretty evenly split on whether they liked the party that they were handing control to.

(It should be noted that the tea party’s net favorable rating is actually in quite a bit more negative territory than the GOP was in 2010, but that could be a function of people not quite knowing what to make of it yet. The GOP and tea party have about equal unfavorable ratings right now.)

In a way, the tea party’s descent in the court of public opinion is part of a natural arc. People are frustrated with politics and politicians, and more and more the tea party is becoming a part of the political process of the day.

Governing creates enemies, and when things don’t get better, people will hold the tea party responsible, along with the Republican Party and the Democratic Party.

At the same time, though, people are expressing gratitude to the tea party for how it has changed the debate in Washington.

The general tea party principles of fiscal responsibility and cutting spending resonate with much of the American public, which has seen the movement affect the debate in Washington in a major way. Given that these are the issues of the day, many people see the tea party as doing some good.

In part, this is because they want balance in their politics. They saw their government spending too much and piling up too much debt, and the tea party came along to combat that. So they’re are thankful.

But that doesn’t mean they’re jumping on board with the tea party. As with the two major political parties, Americans are just as prepared to desert the tea party when things don’t go so well.

In fact, the percentage of people who identify as tea party supporters has remained very constant over the last year, as has the percentage who say they oppose the tea party, with both at about 30 percent in the Gallup poll.

The question now is whether the tea party gets credit or blame for the looming budget battles. If deals are cut that satisfy the public’s desire for spending reduction, the tea party can take a victory lap. If the tea party’s demands are seen as too big (i.e. Medicare cuts) or it guides the country to the brink of default, that doesn’t bode well for it.

For now, the movement’s role in pushing the government to the brink of a shutdown doesn’t appear to have played particularly well. But that was really just the first inning of the game, and many seem generally willing to appreciate the role of the tea party in American politics.

Whichever way things go, though, the tea party will suffer the same stigma attached to the major political parties: I may like what you do, but I don’t have to like you.

 
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