What Is the Tea Party? A Growing State of Mind

Those who embrace the Tea Party movement are much less likely than others to see discrimination as a threat to the nation's future and a hurdle for minorities. More than three in four say racial minorities have equal job opportunities; half of non-Tea Party supporters agree. They overwhelmingly reject the notion that economic disparities between blacks and whites are mainly the result of discrimination.

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Nearly half say blacks lag in jobs, income and housing "because most African Americans just don't have the motivation or willpower to pull themselves up out of poverty." One-third of non-supporters agree.

Tea Party supporters are much less sympathetic than others to illegal immigrants. By 4-to-1, they say illegal immigrants in the long run cost taxpayers too much by using government services rather than becoming productive citizens. That view is hardly out of the mainstream, though — it's held by 52% of those who are not Tea Party supporters.

"The Tea Party (gatherings) are not some radical meetings; it's just average folks," says Tim Brazil, 54, a small-business owner from Chesterfield County, Va., who has attended several local meetings. He says Tea Party members are agitated about the way things are going in the country, and for good reason: "Washington doesn't hear us, and the Tea Party is waking them up."

Engaged and Skeptical

On the last big Election Day, in 2008, the Tea Party didn't exist. Now the name encompasses the most energized segment of the electorate, one that has denied members of Congress renomination, created a new constellation of political heroes and pushed the GOP to the right.

Even so, the movement is less a party than an anti-party, with no clear consensus about whom its national leaders are and a generally dyspeptic view of organized political power.

"It's a party opposed to the idea of parties," says Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian whose book about the movement, The Whites of Their Eyes, is scheduled to be published in October. The Tea Party reminds her more of a religious revival than a political movement. She compares it to the Second Great Awakening in the 1830s, a religious resurgence that helped fuel temperance and abolitionism.

What emerges from the polls and interviews is a deeply engaged, highly skeptical group of people — even toward others in their ranks.

Jones voted for Rand Paul in Kentucky's GOP primary, one of the movement's most celebrated victories this year over an establishment Republican candidate, but says she is "kind of undecided" about whether to support him in November. "When you see his ads, you think, 'Yeah, he's not one of the mainstream politicians,' but his dad's a politician," she says. (Ron Paul is a seven-term Texas congressman and former Republican presidential contender.)

She's not enamored with former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who is a hero to some in the movement. "I don't like her folksy sayings," Jones says. "She's just a politician like the rest of them."

Whether such a loosely organized collection of people can sustain itself as a political force isn't clear, although they have forged a formidable record. Tea Party supporters have helped win the Republican gubernatorial nomination for Nikki Haley in a turbulent South Carolina primary, deny renomination to Republican Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah and push Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter to leave the GOP. (He then lost the Democratic primary.)

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