Tea Party 101: Who are its followers and what do they want?

Of all the protest signs at all the rallies where people gathered last year to object to Washington's plans to save the US economy and reform healthcare, this hand-lettered one is memorable: "You can't fix stupid, but you can vote it out."

That's the "tea party" movement in a nutshell.

Is the tea party a real populist movement or a front for big business?

No single person leads the tea party movement. Sympathizers and role players include conservative politicians Sarah Palin and Dick Armey, antitax crusader Grover Norquist, online organizer Eric Odom of the American Liberty Alliance, and media personalities such as talk radio's Mark Williams and Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck.

But unheralded operatives, such as Brendan Steinhauser, campaign director for FreedomWorks and author of "The Conservative Revolution," created the backbone of the movement, establishing websites and Facebook pages that would become populated with fed-up voters.

Critics say it is being funded or co-opted by entrenched conservative powers like FreedomWorks, which recruits volunteers to lobby for smaller government and lower taxes. The Washington Post has reported that the tea party movement is, through FreedomWorks, tied to corporations like MetLife, Philip Morris, and "foundations controlled by the archconservative Scaife family."

"Nobody is saying that the passion is manufactured," says Chris Harris at MediaMatters, a media watchdog group on the left. "But partisan and pro-­business interests … [are] using people's real passion in a way that protesters aren't meaning."

Tea partyers, however, say the amateur-hour feel of their movement proves it's a true grass-roots uprising. "You can't simultaneously call the movement fractured and incompetent and a vast right-wing conspiracy," says O'Hara.

In March, the Sam Adams Alliance, a Chicago-based nonprofit, issued a report based on a national survey of the tea party movement, its leaders, and their motivations.

Among the findings:

• 86 percent oppose the formation of a third party.
• 36 percent support a 2012 Sarah Palin presidential candidacy.
• 81 percent have a website for their organization.
• 90 percent cited “to stand up for my beliefs” when characterizing their initial reason for involvement.
• 62 percent identified as Republicans, 28 percent as Independents, 10 percent as “Tea Party.”

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