The elephant in the tea room?

Man climbing on an elephant trunk

On Friday, the Los Angeles Times told us that Christian conservatives and the tea party movement were getting cozy. The same day, Politico told us that evangelicals “fear” the tea partiers. (We looked at those two stories here.)

This weekend, the New York Times gives us a third possible narrative. It says that the tea partiers are “avoiding” social conservatism. Here’s the lede:

For decades, faith and family have been at the center of the conservative movement. But as the Tea Party infuses conservatism with new energy, its leaders deliberately avoid discussion of issues like gay marriage or abortion.

God, life and family get little if any mention in statements or manifestos. The motto of the Tea Party Patriots, a large coalition of groups, is “fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets.” The Independence Caucus questionnaire, which many Tea Party groups use to evaluate candidates, poses 80 questions, most on the proper role of government, tax policy and the federal budgeting process, and virtually none on social issues.

The conflicting stories told by these three media heavyweights reminds me of that Jain Hindu Buddhist Indian tale about the blind men and the elephant. Six blind men are asked to describe an elephant and each touches a different part — tusk, trunk, leg, etc. — and describes a completely different animal. It’s not that they’re not telling the truth, it’s just that they’re dealing with limited information.

When I covered the 9/12 Tea Party rally here in Washington, D.C., TMatt asked me to talk about the religion ghosts that the media coverage had missed. I told him that religion didn’t play a terribly noticeable role. I mean, with tens of thousands of homemade signs, you’re bound to have a little bit of everything. But the vast majority of signs talked about concerns with the size and scope of government, the mismanagement of federal programs, debt, etc. I suspected that many of the folks there were religious but that wasn’t exactly what brought them out. And there were a lot of people who flat out didn’t identify with social conservatism — libertarians were a significant presence as were fiscally conservative non-Republicans.

In other words, I think the New York Times piece gets the story much more right than the other two from last week.

Media coverage of the movement hasn’t been great. Reporters have had a bit of a difficult time wrapping their heads around the group’s motivation, goals and composition. Even with the huge — but insufficiently covered — 9/12 rally, I think it took some significant tea party-supported electoral successes and the emergence of tea party themes in other venues (Conservative Political Action Conference, Scott Brown victory, etc.) to get the media to start putting in more effort trying to figure the movement out in more detail.

That’s where these stories from the last week are coming from and I think it’s an excellent avenue for exploration.

What I think these stories miss, I guess, is some historical perspective. I think they also miss what life was like for small government, economic conservatives during the Bush administration.

Social conservatism has long been an animating force for the GOP in particular and the conservative movement in general. That’s just flat out where you get the most committed political operatives and grassroots supporters — at least for the last three decades. But what is also true is that for many years economic conservatives and small government adherents were another key part of the conservative voting bloc.

We could go into what the last ten years have been like for economic conservatives but let’s just say that, from their perspective, things have gone from bad to very bad to much worse. Particularly in the last year and a half or so. Corporate bailouts, the stimulus package, proposed health care reform, the federal budget, tax hikes, cash for clunkers, you name it — they don’t like it and they’re actually getting alarmed.

So all this to say that I think it’s admirable that reporters are trying to get a handle on this story but that it might (still) not really be a story about social conservatism. I know for a fact that the tea party movement has social conservatives in it. And I know that they still care about social issues (I saw some evidence of this in the signage at the March for Life earlier this year). But however upset social conservatives are about the direction of the country, I think the tea party story is about the last decade of frustration and disappointment. There is overlap between these two groups — some of it is probably significant overlap — but it’s just a different story to tell.

I know that much of reporting is about winners and losers. And while you can say that the tea party movement is “winning” right now, it’s also true that social conservatives aren’t doing half bad. As the Times notes, it’s not economic conservatives so much as social conservatives who have been successful in battling health care reform. They also had yet another electoral victory on same-sex marriage last November when Maine voted against same-sex marriage. And economic conservatives and social conservatives worked together to elect Scott Brown. I’m sure there are many more examples.

But Kate Zernike, the reporter who writes this piece, has some trouble on this point:

Social issues still pack a wallop: a group of Democrats opposed to abortion rights could determine the fate of health care legislation in the House. And Republicans at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, while celebrating the Tea Party for energizing their movement, spent much of their time talking about banning gay marriage and overturning Roe v. Wade. “God’s in charge,” Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota told a cheering crowd.

Was CPAC all about Republicans “talking about banning gay marriage and overturning Roe V. Wade”? Is that the same CPAC where, as the Los Angeles Times wrote last week, social issues were unimportant?:

Still, social issues took a back seat to talk of constitutional principles and government spending at the podium at last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual showcase of the right.

Of the two likely Republican presidential contenders who spoke at the event, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney made virtually no mention of social issues, a noted departure from a past CPAC appearance. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty noted briefly that “God is in charge” while focusing most of his remarks on his work cutting spending in his state.

I mean, it’s either one or the other, right? Did social issues dominate CPAC or take a back seat? Pick a narrative guys!

Prior to reading Zernike’s interesting interpretation of CPAC, I thought the media agreed that social issues took a backseat. Not only was someone who opposed allowing a gay rights group to sponsor CPAC booed during the event, but fighting gay marriage ranked low on the issues the attendees cared about primarily. Zernike doesn’t really buttress her point with any specifics and I think she may have confused the point of Pawlenty’s speech, actually.

Zernike has already gotten in trouble for confusing the authentic dialect of a Brooklyn-raised speaker at CPAC with someone being racist and trying to imitate “Chris Rock.” And she’s gotten in trouble — correction-wise — with previous things she’s written about gay issues. Here’s a five-paragraph correction (readers here may appreciate the last corrected item) for a piece she wrote years ago about Boy Scouts and homosexuality. I think she might just have trouble covering speeches, actually.

So maybe we just need three more reports about the tea party movement’s relationship to social conservatives and we’ll finally have this elephant figured out.

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  • dalea

    Mollie says:

    And there were a lot of people who flat out didn’t identify with social conservatism — libertarians were a significant presence as were fiscally conservative non-Republicans.

    What annoys me about the coverage is that the press consistently identifies right wing libertarians as libertarians which ignores the large number of centrist and left wing libertarians. It would be helpful to differentiate the various wings of libertarianism instead of giving the lable to only one facet of the movement.

  • dalea

    Mollie says:

    I think they also miss what life was like for small government, economic conservatives during the Bush administration.

    Do you mean the Bush administration small government types so enthusiastically supported with votes and work? This would be a fascinating story, hope someone covers it.

  • CGGage

    You are quite correct about social conservatives increasing over the past three decades and with them being affiliated with the Republican party. For those of use who are from the traditional Republicans, we are not in the least pleased with this turn of events, but one hangs on as long as possible. Our traditional RNC, going back to the days of Ike, Nixon, Ford, somewhat Reagan, and certainly Bush-41, we had “fiscal conservatism” and “social liberalism” or at least neutrality.

    We can look at several of the Republican presidents signing into law bills that would be considered socially liberal. These were benefit packages and non-discrimination laws, etc.

    What many of us in the true conservative movement (meaning fiscal conservatism) have witnessed is the connection between ultra-conservative religious views that should have nothing to do with government. Churches should stay with churches, and the government should be neutral, just as is in Article 1 of our Constitution.

    Barry Goldwater (now we going back some years) when asked whether Gays should serve in the military responded that the sexual orientation does not matter. “They don’t have to be straight to shoot straight. This is something in which government should not be involved.” And, that is true. This is the true “conservative” and the true Republican. From those of us who were around and members of the RNC long before Jerry Falwell, et. al., showed up, we were the party of business, expanding jobs, providing wealth through jobs, and promoting the advancement of mankind by self-determination and job opportunities.

    How we ever were derailed into being so involved in socially conservative issues, having nothing to do with business and the government, is beyond me. I have watched the party sink to all time lows, coddling to this group, just to get their votes. The RNC I remember went from class to crass, from helping mankind to hindering it, from focusing on helping everyone to quashing human rights in the name of religion and from intellectualism to Fox News. It is appalling.

    Will the Tea Party become our old RNC? Will they stay away from social issues? Hard to say. Right now, I doubt they are sufficiently organized to become a viable party. Time will tell. In the meantime, those of us in the middle will continue to vote for fiscally conservative issues, keeping long-term investment and growth in mind, and voting against such issues as the embarrassing defeat of same-sex civil marriage in Maine.

  • Julia

    I know some people who have been involved with the Tea Party phenomenon since way back with the Sam Adams coalition. It was never meant to be a national platform-type thing. It was meant to be a loose coalition of people doing grass roots political work in their own localities – sharing info and tactics.

    There was a deliberate move to leave the social issues out of it in order to focus on traditional governmental issues. There are many pro-lifers, etc. but they put it aside when meeting with Tea Party types. My son was an official blogger at CPAC and he sent me video of the audience roundly booing the guy who objected to CPAC accepting a gay group as one of the sponsors of the convention. There’s a definite libertarian slant, but not a Ron Paul zeitgeist.

    I don’t know of anybody in the Tea Party or CPAC who is trying to put together an actual political “party” that runs candidates. It’s just happenstance that the original Boston protesters called it a tea party, the tea and cumpets kind of tea party.

    CPAC and the Tea Party groups have publicly denounced candidates in, I think, Texas and Nevada who are claiming to be Tea Party candidates. There is no such thing and these candidates are only trying to siphon votes from Republican candidates to benefit Senator Reid and somebody in Texas – can’t remember who.

    The group who calls itself the “Tea Party Express” is shunned by the real Tea Party people. Their trip around the country did not do so well. It’s the gatherings sparked by local people that get the Tea Party folks out in big numbers.

    It’s kind of like those “happenings” that are coordinated by cell phone – where hundreds show up to do something silly in a very public place. And there are no official sign painting factories involved. I’m from near St Louis where big crowds will show up when a blogger or radio person announces a gathering.

  • Stix

    This is Stix (Doug) Julia’s son

    What most of the Main Stream Media and those that do not attend the Tea Parties realize, is that there is no one Tea Party, or any real kind of organization. Yes, there are some organizational sites, but there is not one. Mainly what the Tea Parties are about is to bring some kind of fiscal sanity back to this country. Many of us are just as upset at Obama and the Democrats as we are at the Republicans and GWB. The wasteful spending that Bush did while in office was the start of much of the angst.

    And let me tell you the story of the beginning of the Tea Party. After Santelli made his “Rant heard around the world”, me and a few people on Twitter were trying to get a Tea Party organized for April 15 in Downtown Chicago. But I knew we needed some more exposure or people with some better contacts, so I Messaged my friend Eric Odom, who I met in Chicago at the first Samsphere that the Sam Adams Alliance sponsored. I knew him beforehand a little bit before I met him in Chicago, because we are both Conservative/Libertarian bloggers in Illinois. And after that is when he made the Chicago Tea Party blog. And it took off from there, and no one really had control over the Tea Party Movement. Almost weekly there is some kind of Tea Party gathering going on all across the country, and each mostly about local issues, but a lot of it has to do with the Health Care Bill going through Congress right now, because this will affect everyone in the country, and mostly in a bad way. It will add debt and be the beginnings of the Single Payer and Government take over of the Health Care Industry in this country.

    The main thing about the Tea Parties is fiscal sanity, but we do not shun or block Social Conservatives from involvement, but it is not what the Majority of the Tea Parties are about. Some may have more religious or Social Conservative slant, but that is because each Tea Party is a local thing. Some are more Fiscal only, and Some have Religious undertones. But that is for each Tea Party to decide for themselves.

    Hopefully this will help you out in understanding of what the Tea party Movement is. It is not one entity. There is the Tax Day Tea Party (Eric Odom’s), Tea Party Patriots and many more.

    And as my mom said, the Tea Party Express was mainly a GOP run Tea Party group trying to make it a national Republican organization. Which it is not, there are Democrats, Independents, Republicans, Conservatives, and Libertarians. There is no one group that runs it.

  • Jake

    Love the analogies.
    Agreed that “Tea Parties” is indiscriminately used by the media to talk about lots of diverse groups who probably don’t agree on much. True, Stix, that fiscal responsibility seems like a root of all the groups, but it seems more like a bunch of people with a gut feeling things aren’t as they should be. Your fabled blind men describing the elephant probably won’t agree on what the problem is much less any solutions. There is strong leanings toward libertarian ideals that divided the GOP as recent as the Nat’l Convention in Minnesota.

    The media will make a big deal about the divides that easily get papered over, especially with the many staunch conservatives who follow the atheistic philosophies of Ayn Rand so faithfully and seem pretty reluctant to sacrifice the push for ‘fiscal sanity’ to coddle social conservatives. The divisions within the Tea Parties are hardly settled ground, making it probable that some wise blind men, as much as they pray, might get trampled while an elephant tries to stay on its feet in an earthquake.

  • Mollie


    Keep comments focused on journalism and not the underlying topic. Thanks.

  • Heather

    Mollie – Just one more non-journalism comment: Great title!

  • Karen Vaughan

    I don’t know whether Zernike was tone deaf on CPAC’s social issues, but I just listened to Jason Mattera’s entire speech and it is disingenuous of him to claim that he is speaking the way he always speaks when his dialect “yes we can” finale was in contrast to the rest of the half hour speech. Frankly the first part is what we hear most often in Brooklyn and the finale is a put on. Her reporting there was spot on.

  • Will

    Er, “tea room” has another meaning, closely related to the “teabagging” sneer.

  • Matt Jamison

    As a social and economic conservative, the vague nature of the Tea Party movement leaves me scratching my head. It seems that people can look at it and see whatever it is that they hope or fear. Is the Tea Party phenomenon driven by Ron Paul fans or not?

    I’m sure its very hard for journalists, as much as anyone else, to see this as it is and not through the goggles of their own politics.