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Amid harsh criticisms, 'tea party' slips into the mainstream

The release of the top three 'tea party' issues this week gives a glimpse of a small-government movement growing, maturing, and looking increasingly more like middle America.

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The fact that most tea party activists are white, however, may reflect less racial animus against a black president than the fact that white workers – by far the majority in the US population – have seen their plight worsen at dramatic rates, some political experts say.

"[O]pposition to health-care reform from the tea party is not based on racism but self-interest," writes NPR's Juan Williams, who is black, in the Wall Street Journal. "The older, whiter segment of the American demographic was at the heart of opposition to the president's health-care proposal because they feared cuts in their Medicare benefits or tax hikes eroding their income."

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Most Americans down on big government

Moreover, polls show that the anger at big government exhibited by tea party protesters is shared by many, if not most, Americans.

A Pew poll in early March found 71 percent of Americans "dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country today," while a CNN poll showed that 56 percent of Americans are more than just discontented with Washington. Instead, that majority of respondents agreed that the government is "so large and powerful that it poses an immediate threat to rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens."

Some tea party critics invoke incidents like Joseph Stack’s airplane attack on the IRS office in Austin and the arrest of the antigovernment Hutaree militia this week as evidence of extremist leanings in the broader tea party world. But such charges often don't hold up, says George Michael, an expert on extremism at the University of Virgina's College at Wise.

Extremist groups like the Guardians of the free Republicans, which made news this week after it suggested that all 50 US governors step down or face removal, most often show evidence of "both left-wing and right-wing elements in their worldview," says Mr. Michael. (Also worth noting: Mr. Stack railed against George Bush in his long screed against the IRS and the Toledo Blade reported this week that at least one of the alleged Hutaree militia members is a voting Democrat.)

"The tea party is the middle 50 percent of America that wants good governance and lean more to the right of Barack Obama on economic issues," says Mr. Hecker, the tea party activist. "By calling them bloodthirsty extremists you're kind of alienating a lot of independents that voted for Obama."