Many of those seeking to understand the Tea Party movement have tried to find historical parallels, and one that has been suggested is the George Wallace movement. Both movements have comprised voters feeling that the America they grew up in is being taken from them, and their strength in the electorate is roughly comparable. George Wallace drew 13 percent of the popular vote in 1968, after polling as high as 20 percent, and the comprehensive poll of the Tea Party movement published by the New York Times on April 14 found that 18 percent of voters consider themselves members of the Tea Party.
But there are significant differences as well. Wallace’s greatest support came from lower-middle- and working-class whites, and Wallace famously sought to defend “this man in the textile mill, this man in the steel mill, this barber, this beautician, the policeman on the beat” against “pointy-headed intellectuals,” “bearded bureaucrats,” “anarchists,” and “lawbreakers.” Thanks to decades of free trade, America now has far fewer workers in textile and steel mills (though the intellectuals and bureaucrats seem to be doing just fine), and the demographic profile of the Tea Party reflects this. Indeed, as the New York Times headline trumpeted, “Poll Finds Tea Party Backers Wealthier and Better Educated,” with 70 percent of Tea Party supporters having at least some college education, as opposed to 53 percent of the general public, and 14 percent of Tea Party supporters having a postgraduate degree, as opposed to 10 percent of the general public. Fifty-six percent of Tea Party supporters reported a family income above $50,000 per year, as opposed to 44 percent of all Americans, and 20 percent of Tea Party supporters reported a family income over $100,000 per year, as opposed to 14 percent of the general public. Since 32 percent of Tea Party members are retired, versus 18 percent of all Americans, these income figures likely understate the degree to which the Tea Party, when compared with Americans as a whole, is better off.
In addition, the Tea Party seems somewhat indifferent to the social and cultural issues that have been an important component of American conservatism since the 1960’s, even though Tea Party members are generally more conservative on those issues than is the general public. When asked to name the most important problem facing the country, 69 percent of Tea Party members point to the economy or the size of government, with only 1 percent naming such perennial concerns of the American right as immigration and abortion, and 45 percent state that reducing the size of the federal government should be the main goal of the Tea Party movement. As grave as our economic problems are, these answers suggest that the Tea Party movement is less radical than its supporters and detractors claim and than the Wallace movement was. Voicing support for libertarian economics and concern over the size of government are, after all, permissible avenues of dissent for American conservatives and increasingly the only forms of dissent permitted them. As Sam Francis argued in these pages in an essay on the legacy of Russell Kirk (Principalities & Powers, September 2004):
Kirk’s classical conservatism was a welcome relief from the tedious and barren libertarianism that strutted about during and after the New Deal and has since managed to thrive as the dominant ideology in the contemporary conservative mind. . . . Recognizing only one problem (“the state”) and only one solution (“individual liberty”), libertarianism offers nothing to those concerned with the impending destruction of their civilization by forces that are largely irrelevant to its twin obsessions.
To their credit, many in the Tea Party do seem to be concerned about the impending destruction of our civilization, but they have yet to grasp the nature of the forces bringing about that destruction and what must be done to avert it.
The Wallace movement, despite its failure to attain power, reconfigured American politics by breaking apart the New Deal coalition. It appears likely that the Tea Party movement will bring about nothing more consequential than a second Contract With America. Far from representing an incipient Third Force in American politics, the Tea Party so far represents the militant arm of the GOP, with Tea Party members less likely than the general public to say America needs a third party. Newt Gingrich is the current political figure most admired by the greatest number of Tea Party members, and 57 percent even have a favorable view of George W. Bush. Two thirds of Tea Party members have always or usually voted Republican, 54 percent have a favorable view of the Republican Party, and an overwhelming 92 percent have a negative view of the Democratic Party. The thoroughgoing leftism of Barack Obama has certainly succeeded in reviving the GOP, but the opposition to Obama has not yet coalesced into the type of force capable of transforming American politics, much less of reviving the American nation whose continuing decline the Tea Party rightly laments.