Probably no other journalist in the United States has devoted as much time to covering the tea party movement as has New York Times reporter Kate Zernike. In her new book "Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America," Zernike takes an up-close look at this emerging political force. Recently I had a chance to talk to Zernike about "Boiling Mad".
In a sentence or two: Who are the tea partyers?
The tea party started out organized by young libertarian-leaning activists who were concerned about the stimulus and the bailouts. It pretty quickly spread to include people who were more driven by anxiety about the economy – either their own personal situation or just in general.
Now it includes people of all ages?
Yes. As time moved on and particularly as health-care legislation became a focus for them, more older people got involved, and that’s why we see polls now showing that the bulk of the tea partyers are over 45, with a large number of them over 65.
Is it fair to say that most are white?
Yes, it is an overwhelmingly white movement. I think the tea partyers do not like that portrayal, because they think that racism is somehow inherent in that, but I think the fairest way to say it is to say that blacks and Hispanics are not represented in the tea party in the same way that they are in the larger population.
These are people who have been concerned for years that government is in every area of our lives. Even in the broader, non-tea party part of the population we see this distrust of institutions. There’s this concern about “too many people controlling my life.” The tea party has found the answer in the Constitution. [Its members] believe the Constitution was polluted – mostly by FDR, ever since the New Deal. There’s this version of history that says that the New Deal was when big government really took off. It’s when the Supreme Court started to say, “It’s OK for the government to do all these kinds of things,” but the tea partyers believe that the Constitution is limited and these powers were not granted to [the federal government] by the Constitution.
So this latent unhappiness was brought to the surface by the government’s response to the 2008 financial crisis?
Yes. I think it’s not that surprising that this would happen. People have been feeling anxious about the collapse, about the government intervention in response to the collapse. The future looks anything but certain and they don’t trust the government to turn it around. The government is the last institution that they trust to ensure a brighter future.
Do tea partyers really make up about 18 percent of the US population?
In our latest poll, taken in April, 18 percent of Americans say they support the tea party. Only about 4 percent of them had ever given money to or gone to a rally. Those are sort of the hard-core activists. But I think you need to look at the supporters because they are the ones who are now voting for these tea party candidates or are inclined to vote for someone who talks like a tea party candidate.
There are now 138 candidates with tea party support?
[In this midterm election] there are 138 candidates who either have come up through the movement or have support from the tea party and share the TP point of view. And that’s only [the US] House and Senate. That doesn’t count the governors’ races.
How many are likely to win this midterm election?
I think it’s totally plausible that as many as half will win.
Could we see the tea party change our country?
I don’t think so. I think they came to be because of a certain number of factors. First, because of the economic collapse. Second, because we have a Democratic president who has been ambitious about his progressive agenda, particularly on health care. Third, because there’s a real conservative media structure promoting it – Fox News and a bunch of online sites. And fourth because it’s a midterm year. Midterm years are years when voter turnouts are lower, so a small group of people that is very vocal can have much more of a voice. I think they’ve had a big impact this year, in the primaries in particular. I don’t think they will be as loud a voice in presidential elections. And I don’t think they will have the numbers to completely change our country. A lot of what they are proposing are things that this country has debated and rejected before, everything from a balanced budget amendment to privatizing social security to scaling back Medicare. Those are not things that are popular among the great majority of Americans.
How did you become “tea party correspondent in chief”?
I was assigned to cover [political] conservatives in 2009. This is a beat we’ve had at [The New York Times] since at least 2003. It was pretty obvious that if you’re going to cover conservatives in 2009, you’re going to be covering the tea party.
You have spent a lot of time with grass-roots tea partyers. Do you find them sympathetic?
It’s hard to generalize. Certainly that is one of the big takeaways from my book. You will discover that a lot of these people sound and look a lot like your neighbors, and in fact they may be your neighbors.
The tea partyers sometimes come across as very angry people. Are they?
They are angry. But [in] the same way that people applauded the new voters and all the people who became newly active in politics in 2008 coming out for Obama, this is the same thing happening on the other side. These are people who want to get involved, not to get into public service, but they want to be involved in the public debate. What’s interesting, too, is that in a lot of cases they are angry with Republicans. What they were saying is that they felt the Republican Party had shut them out. It was the same thing that you were hearing from a lot of supporters of Howard Dean or some Obama supporters about the Democratic Party, that they felt like they had been shut out by the political elite and they were trying to get in. In that way you can understand and see parallels.
What should we learn from the tea partyers?
What brought most people out for the tea party was real concern about the economy, about the [national] debt. I think people need to understand the need to have a conversation around that issue. Also, these are people who feel like they have history and economic arguments on their side. So you need to understand what they are saying. [Those who want to argue with them] will need to [come prepared] to argue on the facts and the ideas. Otherwise, it’s just all about anger on both sides.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.