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Dismiss the Tea Parties at Your Peril -- They're a Force to Be Reckoned With

Never before in our lifetimes has the Right taken to the streets. Combine that with the astroturfing and the megaphone of Fox News, and you have the recipe for a powerful force.

They're the kooks, the wing nuts, the fringe of American politics -- a tiny but vocal and overexposed remnant of the tattered quilt of conservatism. This is how too many progressives dismiss the Tea Party movement.

They're destined for irrelevance, we tell ourselves -- too crazy to be useful to the Republican Party, so why pay attention? They're all named Billy Bob, they can't spell "socialism," they're uneducated and stupid, and they live far from you and me.

Except they don't.

A lot of them live in the suburbs, in nice houses. And they belong to a movement that, for better or worse, is likely to define the American political landscape for the next six years -- and beyond.

In liberal and progressive circles, that is a controversial assertion, even as examples of the Tea Party's nascent power pop up nationwide. In Arizona, John McCain, a four-term senator and the former presidential nominee of the Republican Party, is on the run in the GOP primary from the Tea Party-backed candidate, talk-show host and former congressman, J.D. Hayworth.

The Tea Party crowd is also backing Arizona's draconian new anti-immigrant law, which empowers local law enforcement to demand proof of citizenship from anyone an officer suspects of being in the country illegally. McCain used to favor comprehensive immigration reform that would include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Now, he's running hard to the right, embracing the new law.

Or witness the fortunes of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, the one-time golden boy of the GOP establishment as recently as June 2009, when he won the endorsement of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the race for Florida's open U.S. Senate seat. But the Tea Party was having none of it because of Crist's support of Obama's stimulus package. Tea Party supporters effectively forced Crist out of the Republican primary in favor of their candidate, Marco Rubio. (Crist announced last week that he will remain in the Senate race as an independent.)

Even so, some liberal and progressive analysts seem in a rush to write off the Tea Party movement, citing its lack of a charismatic leader, its often fantastical claims and the trouble it portends for the Republican Party as reasons not to take it seriously. Yet none of those reasons will undo this movement anytime soon.

Who Are The Tea Partiers?

A New York Times /CBS News poll found that 25 percent of self-described Tea Party supporters reported their income to be in the $50,000 - $74,000 bracket (compared with 18 percent of the general public), while 20 percent claimed incomes of over $100,000 (compared with 14 percent of the general public).

The percentage of Tea Party supporters with college degrees substantially exceeds the percentage of those in the general population (23 percent, compared with 15 percent for the general public), while 33 percent of Tea Party supporters attended college without obtaining a degree, compared with 28 percent of the general public.

On its face, the information on income and education levels among Tea Party supporters is apt to cause some head-scratching, considering the array of conspiracy theories and general sense of paranoia among movement followers.

Reporting for the Nation on the April 15 "tax day" Tea Party protest convened at the Washington Monument by FreedomWorks, a Washington lobbying group, Richard Kim, in an article reprinted on AlterNet, spoke to one protester who was convinced that the government was going to put her on some kind of list for using incandescent light bulbs.

Several days later, I interviewed Stewart Rhodes, the leader of Oath Keepers, an organization whose members count themselves as part of the Tea Party movement, who alleged that the negative publicity he received from  Mother Jones  and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow was part of a plot the government was launching to discredit his group.