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Who or what is the Tea Party movement? Survey offers some answers

They’ve been called patriots and extremists, constitutional sticklers and libertarians.

Who are the people who make up the Tea Party movement?

According to a new survey undertaken by sociologists from Vanderbilt University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Tea Partiers are an old movement in new (albeit retro) packaging.

“The Tea Party movement is best understood as a new cultural expression of the late-20th century Republican Party,” said Steven J. Tepper, associate professor of sociology at Vanderbilt and associate director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at the university. “Compared to the Republican Party, Tea Party supporters are more likely to support libertarian principles.  But virtually every other characteristic of Tea Party supporters – from demographics to political and social attitudes – matches the profile of Republican supporters.”

“[rquote]I would say that the Tea Party right now is not positioned to change American politics in any drastic way.[/rquote]”

Tepper, along with UNC-Chapel Hill colleagues Andrew J. Perrin, Neal Caren and Sally Morris, conducted two telephone surveys of registered voters in North Carolina and Tennessee in the spring and fall of 2010, as well as interviews and observations at a Tea Party rally in Washington, N.C. Results of the poll of about 2,500 people were published in the Spring 2011 issue of Contexts magazine. The margin of error on the statistics used in this release is plus or minus 3.1 percent.

“The coalition of views that make up the Tea Party movement is not necessarily new,” said UNC’s Perrin, one of the study’s principal investigators. “What’s new is the melding of 21st century discontent with the symbolic memory of 18th century America.”

A new study from Vanderbilt University offers insights into who Tea Party members are and their beliefs. (iStockPhoto)

The surveys identified four major traits of people who identify with the Tea Party – authoritarianism, libertarianism, fear of change and anti-immigrant sentiment.


81 percent of Tea Party supporters agreed that it was more important for children to obey their parents than be responsible for their own actions. Only 65 percent of non-Tea Party people agreed with that statement.


24 percent of Tea Party supporters believe that there should be fewer rules about what can be posted on the Internet, compared with 16 percent of non-Tea Party supporters.

Fear of Change

51 percent of Tea Party supporters considered themselves “very concerned about changes taking place in American society these days,” compared with 21 percent of non-Tea Party supporters.

Anti-immigrant Sentiment

18 percent of Tea Party supporters feel “very negatively” toward immigrants, compared with 12 percent of non-Tea Party supporters.

“We set out to determine if general public support for the Tea Party movement represents a new political and cultural phenomenon, or if it’s simply realignment within the Republican Party,” Tepper said.

“It appears to be the latter,” he said.

Tepper argues that the Tea Party movement has been healthy for the political system as a whole, because it stirred up discussion.

“It’s gotten everybody on both sides engaged in debating the role of government,” he said.