Understanding the Tea Party

What should Catholics think about the recent phenomenon known as the Tea Party? Its members and sympathizers are often characterized as racist, fanatical extremists bent on destroying the Obama presidency. But are they in fact? Recent evidence seems to point to the fact that they are mainstream Americans who view an ever-growing federal government as the biggest threat to the country’s future. In this, it might be argued, they instinctively practice what Pope Pius XI defined in his 1931 Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno as subsidiarity, “the fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry.”

A little history will help us here. Listening to mainline media ranting against the Tea Party, one would think this was the first-ever populist uprising against elitist-driven government policies. In fact, populism took root in the early days of our republic.

In 1794, for example, western Pennsylvania settlers, unhappy with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s big government fiscal policies, vehemently opposed the federal excise tax on their only barterable product – whiskey. Mass protest meetings were held in scores of villages and hamlets and a few overzealous protesters burnt the home of a tax collector.

After negotiations broke down, President Washington sent 12,000 troops under Hamilton’s command to quell the dissenters. There was no violence; the protesters peacefully disbanded and the only two who were tried and found guilty of treason were pardoned by Washington.

Even though the Whiskey Rebellion failed, it had an important impact on national politics: Westerners threw their support behind Thomas Jefferson in 1800 because his party’s platform opposed direct federal excise taxes.

Most nineteenth-century populists considered it a sacred mission to uphold Jeffersonian agrarian principles and to oppose Hamiltonian urban values. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner pointed out that the populist agenda was directed to “the survival of the pioneer, striving to adjust present conditions to his old ideals.”

Unfortunately, however, many populist movements, led by small town and rural Protestants, were also driven by anti-Catholic sentiments. These “plain folks” called for an “America for Americans” and directed much of their venom against Irish, German, Italian, and Eastern European Catholic immigrants. The Anti-Masonic Party (1828), the nativist American Republican Party (1843), Know-Nothing Party (1849), American Protective Association (1887), and the People’s Party (1894), fearing the Catholic population’s growing ballot-box and economic power, attacked the major parties for courting papists.

Despite their biased agendas, populist movements, including recent ones, have had an impact on the fiscal, economic, and cultural policies of both the Democratic and Republican parties. The People’s Party (whose hero was William Jennings Bryan) promoted programs that became the basis of the New Deal and pushed Republicans to support nativist legislation that curtailed Catholic immigration from Europe. Huey Long’s “Share the Wealth” populism moved President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s to take on “Economic Royalists.” George Wallace’s American Independence Party campaign against Washington “bureaucrats with briefcases” and “pointy-head pseudo-intellectuals” was co-opted by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Past populist achievements may explain the Left’s rush to destroy the Tea Party in its infancy and its vicious attacks on members as red-neck trailer trash.

A recent poll, commissioned by the National Review Institute and conducted by John McLaughlin and Associates, dispels the claim that the Tea Party is a backwoods fringe movement. Whatever else we might think of it, Catholics should understand it accurately. The poll reveals that Tea Party participants represent a cross section of America, including American Catholics. (In my next column, I will look specifically at what it discovered about the differences between church-going and nominal Catholics.)

Most surprising – 26 percent voted for Obama, 25 percent are registered Democrats, 36 percent are college graduates, 26 percent are urbanites, and 40 percent make over $60,000 annually.

The movement is not an angry-male thing: 50 percent are women. Religious affiliations also reflect America: 60 percent Protestant, 28 percent Catholic, 2 percent Jewish. Sixty-nine percent attend religious services regularly. On the abortion issue, 68 percent are pro-life, 26 percent pro-choice. Here are some of the other findings:

· 62 percent are Republican, 25 percent Democratic, 10 percent Independent
· 16 percent are liberal, 19 percent moderate, 64 percent conservative
· 26 percent are urban residents, 41 percent suburban, 29 percent rural
· 16 percent live in the East; 19 percent in the Midwest, 45 percent in the South, 21 percent in the West
· 81 percent are white; 16 percent non-white
· 36 percent are college grads, 16 percent have post-graduate degrees, 29 percent have some college, 16 percent are high school graduates
· 57 percent are over 55 years old, 26 percent are 41-55; 9 percent are 26- 40
· 33 percent approve of Obama’s job performance; 66 percent disapprove

This is not the profile of isolated extremists but of Americans from all walks of life who are educated and informed on the issues confronting their nation.

A vast majority of the Tea Party sympathizers support individual initiative and oppose government intervention, believe Washington Democrats are spending too much time pursuing their Big Government ideology, and think Congress has exceeded the Constitutional limits of its power. They also hold that the present financial crisis and recession were caused by reckless bank practices; by federal policies that promoted poor choices and irresponsible borrowing by people who could not afford to repay their mortgages. As for health care, 74 percent believe the Obama legislation will make health care worse for most Americans, 76 percent say it will increase healthcare costs, and 92 percent are concerned that it will increase the size of the federal deficit.

Finally, a whopping 87 percent of Tea Party folks are “very likely” to vote in the 2010 election for U.S. Congress. If that comes to pass, it will be a vote for subsidiarity and cause a major Richter Scale earthquake in Washington.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.