Rift in the Right: Many Conservatives Reject the Tea Party's Paranoid Views

When you think of the word "conservative," what comes to mind? Did you say the Tea Party? Well, if you did, you'd only be half-right. That's because 51 percent of self-identified conservatives do not strongly identify with the Tea Party, and strong majorities within that non-Tea Party contingent reject some of the Tea Party movement's signature sentiments, according to a new study by the University of Washington's Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race and Sexuality -- such as the notion that President Barack Obama is "destroying" America. Yet despite their rejection by the conservative mainstream, Tea Party leaders appear to control the Republican Party agenda.

Among Tea Party-aligned conservatives, 71 percent said that Obama was "destroying the country." Only six percent of those conservatives not strongly supportive to the Tea Party movement agreed with the statement, suggesting, according to a statement issued by institute, that the tea party is taking its philosophy in directions far more extreme than those of average conservatives." In other areas, the contrast was similarly stark. A whopping 76 percent of Tea Party conservatives said they wanted Obama's policies to fail, compared with (a still troubling) 32 percent of more mainstream conservatives.

And why do all those Tea Partiers want those policies to fail? Because they're perceived, somehow, as "socialist," despite the corporation-friendly nature of so-called financial reform, or a health-care reform plan rooted in the private sector. Three-quarters of Tea Party conservatives -- 76 percent -- told survey-takers that Obama's policies were pushing the country toward socialism. While mainstream conservatives more reticent to cry "socialism," 40  percent of them agreed with the Tea Partiers on that claim.

When it came to the conspiracy theories that fuel the Tea Party -- tropes about Obama's religion and place of birth -- the gap narrowed, but remained significant.

Despite the president's well-documented Christian faith, 27 percent of Tea Party-identified conservatives said the president was a practicing Muslim, compared to 16 percent of mainstream conservatives. Among mainstream conservatives, 46 percent agreed that the president is a practicing Christian, while only 27 percent of Tea Party conservatives agreed. 

And despite Obama's release, during the presidential campaign, of documentation of his birth in Hawaii, only 40 percent of Tea Party conservatives believe the information on his certificate of live birth, compared with a slim majority -- 55 percent -- of mainstream conservatives.

Since the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, the Republican Party has become a nearly monolithically conservative party, a reflection of the party's takeover by the religious right in 1979. Gone are the "Rockefeller Republicans" -- politicians and their followers who were fiscally conservative and socially liberal.

So when we speak today of the conservative movement, we're essentially talking about the GOP -- which means that a rupture in the conservative movement, as revealed in the University of Washington data, could signal a rift in the Republican Party not unlike the one that launched the presidential candidacy of Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., in 1964. While the result of that single race was disastrous for the G.O.P., it set the stage for Reagan's ascent 16 years later. And given the speed with which the Tea Party movement sprang in response to the election of the nation's first African-American president, if that acceleration maintains its momentum, could the G.O.P. become the Grand New Tea Party in four or eight years' time?

Already, establishment figures in the mainstream conservative movement -- columnists and pundits such as George Will of the Washington Post, David Brooks of the New York Times and David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter who blogs at FrumForum -- have begun pushing back against the Tea Party movement's more preposterous themes. When former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, now testing a potential presidential run, insinuated that the president was raised in Kenya, George Will accused him of "spotlight-chasing" in a way that rendered him unworthy of overseeing "a lemonade stand, much less nuclear weapons."

"Right around 50 years ago, you had this split in the Republican Party between the Goldwater people and the Rockefeller sort of Republicans," said Christopher Parker, the University of Washington associate professor of political science, who led the survey. "We see the same split happening right now." Although Parker sees some differences between the Tea Party followers and the John Birch Society fans who helped fuel the Goldwater candidacy, the Birchers "still had these really extreme ideas, you know these ideas embedded and rooted in conspiracy theories," Parker told AlterNet. "Well, we see the same thing now," he continued. "If you get the way that that treatment is worded -- 'Barack Obama will destroy the country' -- I mean, how much more extreme can one get? And you see that these conservatives who do not ally themselves strongly with the Tea Party, they don't follow that line."

Is it possible, then, I asked Parker, that the Republican Party itself will become more divided? "Yes," he replied. "We've been seeing this ever since the mid-term elections... And I, for one, think it's driven by this split among conservatives..."

Although the establishment conservatives -- people like Will and Brooks and Frum -- have the power positions in mainstream media, the Tea Party movement, nonetheless, appears to drive the Republican agenda. "They're more politically active and engaged," Parker explained. "And our data show that across a range of activities or measures for political engagement, that people who strongly support the Tea Party are more engaged and more active than people who don't. And that's ranging from voting in the mid-term elections to attending a meeting to donating to a campaign, volunteering for a campaign -- I mean, you name it."

In other words, House Speaker John Boehner may not be a Tea Partier at heart, but it's the Tea Partiers to whom he must answer. So even though the Tea Party movement has yet to assume the majority within the G.O.P., it drives the agenda because of the destruction its followers could wreak on those who refuse its demands.

The split in the conservative movement could be good news for liberals and progressives, but only if they are willing to exploit the divisions among their opponents, something they've never shown much taste for doing. Wedge-driving has long been the tactic of conservatives and Republicans -- rarely of liberals and Democrats. If those divisions are allowed to take their natural course, the probable outcome will be an even more reactionary and paranoid G.O.P., and that's not good for anybody.

Parker, however, sees another possible scenario, heralded by the uprising in Wisconsin against the draconian, anti-worker, anti-poor-people policies of Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, who won his spot as his state's chief executive with a hefty assist from billionaire David Koch, patron of the Tea Party movement. Parker foresees the possibility a nationwide, grass-roots push-back against the Tea Party-driven agenda.

"When you think about what's going on, for example, in Wisconsin," Parker said, "there's a possibility that what's happening with these candidates or with these elected officials who are really paying attention to the Tea Party and all the noise these Tea Partiers are making -- it's possible it could lead to a counter-mobilization. [Wisconsin] could be a case in point, where you see this massive counter-mobilization against these groups."

Parker's latest survey is based on 1,504 telephone interviews of respondents from 13 states.

Under Parker's direction, the Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race and Sexuality began collecting data on Tea Party supporters last year, producing a landmark survey on Tea Partiers' racial attitudes, finding 73 percent of Tea Party "true believers" agreed with the statement that "if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites."


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