Posted by: Jeff | February 18, 2010

The Tea Partiers are Privileged and Self-Absorbed

Yes, that’s a harsh title for a blog post. The Tea Partiers put me in a harsh mood.

Via Matt Yglesias, we now have a CNN poll breaking down the demographics of the Tea Party movement in comparison to the demographics of Americans in general. And it turns out that, lo and behold, the movement really is made up of what Yglesias terms “well-to-do conservative white men.” Who knew?

“Of this core group of Tea Party activists, 6 of 10 are male and half live in rural areas,” CNN reports. “Nearly three quarters of Tea Party activists attended college, compared to 54 percent of all Americans, and more than three in four call themselves conservatives.”

Sixty-six percent of the tea party activists reported an income higher than $50,000 per year. Among the overall sample in the poll, that figure was 42%. The group is 80% white, as opposed to 71% among all respondents to the poll.

Even more strikingly, if you look more closely at the poll, and at the specific distributions of income among the Tea Party activists, the percentages increase as the income levels rise. 8 percent make less the $30,000 while 18 percent make between $30,000 and $50,000 and 32 percent make between $50,000 and $75,000. The amount that makes over $75,000 a year? 34 percent.

To give some perspective on this, the median income in the United States as of 2006 was just shy of $50,000. According to this data, two thirds of Tea Party activists make the median income or higher. And while the same amount of income does not equal the same level of lifestyle and well-being in every part of the country, as the poll says half of the Tea Partiers hail from rural areas, where the same amount of money will generally get you more than it will in other areas. So not only are the Tea Partiers well-off in comparison to most Americans, they’re probably really well-off in comparison to the average person in whatever part of the country they live in.

I bring all this up because the notion that the Tea Partiers are a grassroots uprising of “normal” or “everyday” Americans against the depredations of the “elites” has become central to the movement’s mythos. Sarah Palin, who has been auditioning for the role of leader of the Tea Partiers in recent weeks, was of course quite willing to confer the “real America” monicker on the movement. (Nevermind that there is nothing more elitist than presuming to divide the country up into “real” and “not-real” Americans.)

So let’s be clear. The Tea Parties are not made of Americans who can be considered average or everyday by any objective demographic standard. They are made up of Americans who are unusually economically fortunate in comparison to most of their countrymen. And this is relevant to the Tea Partiers’ political agenda. They are against tax increases, they are against increased government spending, and they are against the health care reform package put together by the Democrats in Congress. All of which makes perfect sense when one considers their economic demographics. Being well-off, they are more likely to get hit by higher taxes in a country with progressive income taxation policies. And being well-off, they are more protected from the economic pitfalls of life than are most Americans. They have less need of government spending, which overwhelmingly goes to benefit the poor and disadvantaged, and they have less need of health insurance reform. The current health insurance market deals with them pretty well, precisely because of their higher level of income.

Stated bluntly, the Tea Partiers do not labor under as much economic insecurity as most Americans. They do not suffer as much or come into as much contact with the dark side of life, and their absorption with their own narrow interests drives their political agenda. The movement is made up of privileged individuals out to defend their privilege, and who are perfectly willing to preserve whatever social or economic injustices are necessary to maintain that privilege.



  1. You call making more than 50K a year “privileged”?

    What about Nancy Pelosi….who’s net worth is more than 12 million dollars?

    Pick anyone out of Congress….I guarantee you they have more than a million dollars in assets. More than likely, they are multi-millionaires.

    I’m sure the Tea-partiers just want to have the chance to be millionaires too (or at least leave some money to their heirs).

    I would say that the Tea partiers are more “average American”, than anyone in Congress.

  2. Even more strikingly, if you look more closely at the poll, and at the specific distributions of income among the Tea Party activists, the percentages increase as the income levels rise. 8 percent make less the $30,000 while 18 percent make between $30,000 and $50,000 and 32 percent make between $50,000 and $75,000. The amount that makes over $75,000 a year? 34 percent….

    The average federal government worker makes more than $50,000 a year. They get great health care and pensions. So I guess that makes Obama’s crew even more out of touch than the Tea partiers. Nice try, but sell this to someone else.

  3. @trishothinks – I’m not sure I would call anyone who makes 50K or over privileged. (But making more than half the country is nothing to sneeze at, either.) But 2/3 of the Tea Partiers make 50K at minimum, while only half the country as a whole makes that amount. And 34 percent of the Tea Partiers make 75K at minimum, while only 27% of the country as a whole does. (I’d be very interested to see what portion of the Tea Partiers make in the 100K and 200K ranges.) So while the Tea Partiers may not be privileged to the last man, the genuinely privileged are over-represented in their ranks.

    Now, that said, I would certainly agree that the economic privilege enjoyed by the average member of Congress leaves the average Tea Partier in the dust. I’m just not sure why that matters. Your point strikes me as a non sequitur, frankly.

    The question is not one of the Tea Partiers’ interests versus the interests of Congress. Whether or not we expand the welfare state, fix the health care system or plug the hole in the deficit is not going to be of significant personal consequence to members of Congress one way or the other. They’re too rich for those problems to affect them much individually. Rather, the question is one of the Tea Partiers’ interests versus the interests of the rest of the country. What’s good for well-off white conservative males age 30 and above is not necessarily what’s good for America writ large. And to America writ large, whether or not we tackle those problems I just listed matters quite a bit. The “populists” in the Tea Party movement are championing an agenda which will rebound to the benefit of the most well-off, mostly at the expense of the less fortunate. And that’s probably because the make-up of the Tea Parties is itself tilted towards the more well-off, while under-representing the truly disadvantaged.

  4. Z – that’s a non-argument argument.

    Federal government is the most diverse work force in the country (college grads, PHD’s, direct hires, consultants). They have great benefits, including health care, and you get a chance to serve the country. People who are angry at the government shouldn’t be upset at their employees. I don’t like WalMart’s practices, but I’m not going to rail against the folks behind the cash register. I wouldn’t say that there is something wrong with them for working there.

    Of all days to make a case against Federal Employees, really classy to do it the day some crazy loon CRASHED A PLANE TO try to settle a score against the IRS.

    • Who are you? Kreskin? Typical progressive liberal drivel. When you can’t credibly refute my argument you decide to try and demean me. Who said I don’t like Federal workers? More power to them. They’ve latched onto a cash cow. So they should ride it while they can.

      I can tell you something I don’t like. You.

  5. “latched onto a cash cow”.

    How about getting paid for performing work (Congressmen aside).


    First Bush. Now Obama. The fun never ends. Well, technically the fun will end. Someday the loan comes due.

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