On Social Issues, Tea Partiers Are Not Libertarians

The Tea Party has its roots in the Ron Paul campaign, and its activists vociferously promote it as a purely small-government movement, but new polling reinforces a notion that's gained traction as we've learned more about the Tea Party: that its members are, by and large, social conservatives, not social libertarians.

On the issues of abortion and gay marriage, Tea Partiers sit well to the right of the general public  according to a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute.

(Note: the results are taken from a sample of 345 self-identified members of the Tea Party movement, with a calculated margin of error of +/- 5.5 percent. General-public responses were taken from the full field of over 3,000 respondents.)

A full 63 percent of Tea Partiers think abortion should typically be illegal--21 percent more than the general public. 26 percent of Tea Partiers say abortion should always be illegal, while 37 percent say it should be illegal "in most cases."

And only 18 percent of Tea Partiers support gay marriage--19 percent fewer than the general public. 35 percent of Tea Partiers support civil unions, while a whopping 45 percent support no legal recognition whatsoever.

So much of the Tea Party movement is about limiting the role of government, and a dominant tone in Tea Party rhetoric--heard in rally speeches and seen in materials disseminated via e-mail by Tea Party groups--is that the government is doing too much, to a point where it's denying American citizens their freedom.

But most of this, officially, has to do with spending. In fact, it seems that the main intellectual solution offered, and problem posed, by the Tea Party movement is the connection between government spending and personal liberty.

The supplied answers have to do with the burden of debt on future generations, the inherent infringement of taxes on personal wealth and income, and the individual mandate instituted under health care reform--the requirement that all Americans purchase health insurance.

Perhaps even more of it has to do with fear of President Obama and his agenda. "Don't you know what they're trying to do?" an early-middle-aged man asked me at Glenn Beck's rally on the National Mall in August. I shook my head. "They're trying to take away our freedom."

That Obama is trying to take freedom away from all of us was a recurring theme in what I heard from some attendees at the Beck rally and from speakers onstage at another rally on the Mall organized by FreedomWorks a few weeks later.

But none of it has to do with social issues. I have never heard a Tea Party group, or a Tea Party crowd, or a Tea Party speaker call for the government to end all involvement in abortion and marriage.

Those ideas do exist within the Tea Party movement, but, according to this relatively small sample of 345 respondents, it's not shared by most of the people involved.

The coexistence of social conservatism and the libertarian reasonings behind the Tea Party's brand of economic conservatism probably make up a fundamental contradiction for the movement, whether Tea Partiers realize it or not. I don't sense that many of them see gay marriage or abortion as matters of freedom.

"Coherence in contradiction expresses the force of a desire," Jacques Derrida wrote.

The Tea Party is full of desire, but I'm not sure social conservatism means contradiction for those involved. The early organizers of the Tea Party movement originally set out to avoid this clash. Some people wanted to talk about social issues, but the people who wanted to avoid them eventually won out.

Tea Party has been able to purge social conservatism from its broad, national message, while still incorporating a vast number of social conservatives into its ranks. It has become an outlet for anyone who doesn't like Obama--and it manages to suppress social politics from the spoken reasons.

As a result, lots of people in the Tea Party movement have a lot more reasons for disliking President Obama, and for participating in rallies, than actually gets talked about onstage.

And that, I suspect, offers them some coherence in contradiction, housing but not advertising all forms of frustration under one yellow flag.