What’s really brewing in the “tea parties?”

If we listen only to the main stream media, we might think that the tea party movement is comprised of a rowdy bunch of right-wing extremist “‘hicks’” whose sole goal is to cause chaos at a time when America desperately needs solutions (see, recent Huffington Post rant concerning the tea party).

What the mainstream media (Keith Olbermann in particular) is missing is that the bottom-up, localized nature of the tea party movement makes it next to impossible to compartmentalize the political beliefs of its individual activists into a tidy little box.

Take the political philosophy of tea party activist Amy Kelly of Texas.  On one hand, she thinks marijuana should be legalized, and on the other hand she thinks life begins at conception.  So how does Kelly justify her seemingly paradoxical views with regard to government intrusion?  She believes that both matters should be left to the states to decide.  A self-described “right wing conservative independent libertarian,” Kelly posits “I’ve been fooled by the Democrats, the Republicans, the Reform party, the talk radio movement, Fox news, and everything in between, so to be fooled again means I have no one to blame but myself.”

Should we view Kelly’s political leanings as being similar to that of your average tea party activist?  Perhaps, but categorizing people even on a simple left-right spectrum, where the average is “moderate” often paints a misleading picture.  Trying to boil down the political philosophy of the tea party participants, with a multi-dimensional axis of issues, seems like a fool’s mission (perhaps that’s why Mr. Olbermann keeps at it night after night).

The Chicago-based Sam Adams Alliance, a tea party-affiliated, non-profit organization with a mission to “support free-market principles and policies” takes a different approach from the mainstream media’s talking heads.  After listening to the activists themselves, the Alliance recently released a report entitled, “The Early Adopters: Reading the Tea Leaves.”  The report draws conclusions from a survey of 49 local tea party leaders in 38 states.  According to Breitbart.com, “[t]he Sam Adams report offers the first-ever insights into the Tea Party movement that include a survey sample made up entirely of recognized Tea Party activists.”

What top-line items can we glean from this report?  Among those surveyed, when asked which issues were “very important” to them 92 percent indicated “budget,” with “economy” ranking second at 85 percent and “defense” finishing third at 80 percent.

For a large portion of the leaders polled in the survey (47 percent), becoming a tea party activist was their first real foray into political activism prior to 2009.  While anger fuels many tea party activists, the primary reason for their initial involvement in the movement is described as “‘to stand up for my beliefs.’”  Tea party leaders “struggle with questions of leadership and identity;” when asked about party affiliation, 62 percent identified themselves as Republicans, 28 percent as independents and 10 percent as “Tea Party.”  Contrary to the popular pundit story line, 86 percent of the survey’s participants “oppose the formation of a third-party.”

While the Sam Adams Alliance sponsored survey provides several nuggets of preliminary insight into the makeup of individual tea party leaders, we still have much to learn about the tea party movement and its activists.  But it would appear that they are eager to tell us, if we are ready to listen: 92 percent of the tea party leaders surveyed use Facebook, 81 percent have a website for their organization and 60 percent utilize Twitter.  Pretty tech savvy and communicative for a bunch of “rowdy hicks.”

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