Monday, June 27, 2011

How libertarian is the Tea Party? Not very!

One of the great urban legends in American politics is that the so-called Tea Party movement is libertarian, or significantly libertarian. All the data I’ve seen, and personal experience, has indicated to me that the Tea Party is overwhelmingly conservative, in every sense of the word, and not libertarian at all.

I have no doubt that some libertarians participate in this movement. That is their right, and their problem. But adding a sprinkling of salt to your bath doesn’t make it the Pacific Ocean, and adding a handful of libertarians to conservative movement doesn’t make the movement libertarian. Given how outnumbered the libertarians are by conservatives I suggest that the influence is more likely to push these libertarians in a conservative direction, than the other way around. Many would consciously alter libertarian theory in order to sound more acceptable to their new conservative friends. Others will simply adopt the unthinking, Right-wing views of the Tea Party as their own.

Various surveys and polls have clearly shown the Tea Party to be typically conservatives, at least in regards to today’s conservative movement. It was more religious than the Republican Party but less religious than the Religious Right. 
ABC New found that: “Eight out of ten Americans who identified with the Tea Party were Christians and 47 percent said they were part of the Christian conservative movement.” This was according to a Public Religious Research Institute poll.  These percentages are much higher than they are for the American public in general. 
This poll says, “They are mostly social conservatives, not libertarians on social issues. Nearly two-thirds (63%) say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, and less than 1-in-5 (18%) support allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry.” In comparison most polls today place support for removing regulations banning gay marriage in the range of 51% to 54%. And another PRRI poll on abortion finds that only 40% of Americans hold the same view regarding abortion. Tea Party supporters are 50% more likely to want state control of abortion. And where half of the American public wants the deregulation of marriage to allow same-sex unions, 4-in-5 Tea Party supporters want to keep these state controls firmly in place. Certainly the Tea Party groups in New York were actively opposing the legalization of same-sex marriage there. For instance the Tea Party Patriots made it clear to “libertarian” Republican Greg Ball, that if he voted for deregulating marriage they would actively oppose him, instead of support him. Ball caved into the threats in spite of his alleged libertarian principles. 
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has released a more recent survey of Tea Party members. While this updates the previous numbers, it does little to confirm the urban myth that this movement has a large libertarian component to it. It does find that 88% of Tea Party members want “smaller” government, but we’ve been hearing that from big government conservatives for as long as I remember. In the end their moralistic agendas and pro-war policies trump any alleged commitment to smaller government.

Only 1-in-10 of TP supporters say they disagree with the religious right, 42% say they agree and 46% claim to have no opinion or say they never heard of the religious right, making them among the least-informed voters around, if true.  They also say “most people who agree with the religious right also support the Tea Party.” The overwhelming majority of people who say they are part of the religious right support the Tea Party as well, 69% to be precise. Only 4% of religious right adherents disagree with the Tea Party.
And while the Tea Party types want some spending decreases there are numerous areas where they do not want cuts and often support spending increases. Tea Party supporters are far more likely to support increases in “veteran’s benefits, than they are to support cuts, by 5-to-1 margin actually.  Twice as many of them want spending on the war on terror increased. More want military spending increases, than want cuts, they are pretty evenly split regarding whether to spend more on roads and transportation. These are traditional areas for conservatives to support higher spending. Like conservatives, again, Tea Party members want to cut aid to the world’s needy, cut scientific research, cut aid to needy America, end agriculture subsidies and so forth. These are fairly traditional conservative spending priorities, not libertarian ones.
The new Pew polls find that the differences between Tea Party types and the Republican Party, in general, on social issues, is minute at best. There is no significant libertarian difference. The most recent survey finds that while 24% of Republicans support ending the bans on same-sex marriage, 26% of Tea Party members do. Republicans in general are slightly more likely to support keeping abortion legal, 38% of them. But only 34% of Tea Party people want to keep abortion legal and 59% say it should be made a crime in most or all cases.

On immigration issues Tea Party people are more anti-freedom than Republicans in general. For Republicans 45% say that the priority in immigration is “border security” while for Tea Party people 51% say this. Of Republicans 13% want a path to citizenship, only 10% of Tea Party say that ought to be the priority.  For Republicans 41% say that the priority should be both policies, for Tea Party supporters it is 37%.

Tea Party supporter are significantly less libertarian on these three social issues than the American public in general.  They trail the general public by 17 points when it comes to keeping abortion legal. In the Pew survey they trail the public on same-sex marriage by 16 points, but numerous other surveys show the gap much wider.  And when it comes to enhanced “border security” the Tea Party is 20 points more supportive of more spending and controls.
Tea Party types are also more likely to say that their politics is an extension of their religious views. Just 37% of all registered voters say religion determines their views on marriage equality, for Tea Party supporters the number is 53%. On abortion only 28% of all voters say religion determines their view, for Tea Party people the percentage is 46%.

Support for the Tea Party movement is highest among people who attend churches associated with the religious right.  By a 5-to-1 ratio white evangelicals are more likely to say they agree with the Tea Party than to disagree with it. Mainstream Protestants and Catholics are move evenly split.

The Tea Party most resembles the religious right of all other identifiable groups in American politics. And no one pretends the religious right is libertarian. So why do people continue on with the myth that the Tea Party is a movement for liberty?



  1. How odd that the author assessed Tea Partiers only according to philosophically problematic (to libertarians) issues like abortion and gay marriage. I really would have expected to see the clearest of the litmus tests: position on the Drug War.

  2. They are bad on the war on drugs but because it isn't in the news right now they don't talk about it much. But their conservatism comes out in the other two issues, along with immigration, regularly. These are NOT "problematic" for libertarians, they are problematic for conservatives who pretend to be libertarians.

  3. When I thought movement was a libertarian one I joined. The fact is, fiscally conservative policies are freer for the masses than more "liberal" ones. But I cannot give votes to those that want to interrupt my personal life or those that espouse racism. I left the Tea Party because it's a sham. Their leadership is entirely conservative. The one thing I take exception to in this article is that libertarians in the movement would be influenced by conservatism. It was my hope, and others, that we would have an influence on the movement before it got off its initial rails. Sadly the movement has codified and embraced its conservative nature by elevating people like Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin to the positions they now enjoy. These are dangerous individuals indeed.