Gone Tea-Bagging: A Field Guide To America's New PatriotsS

Who exactly are these elusive tea partiers we keep hearing so much about?

Often spotted on the nightly news, at protest rallies, or at undisclosed bunkers in the heartland of America - and influencing elections, notably in Florida and Massachusetts - the whims of Homo sapiens teabaganderthalensis are of great interest to social scientists and political junkies. Below, we break down the details.

What Exactly Is A "Tea Partier"?

If the designation of "tea partier" (or in a more leftist parlance, "teabaggers") seems nebulous, that's because the identity of a tea partier is mutable. The initial 2009 reports of Americans gathering to protest against taxes and larger government gave rise to the idea that tea partiers were pissed off members of the Republican fringe. Wingnuts, if you will. Indeed, the first impressions of the average tea partier looked something like this:

While tracking the tea partiers in their native habitat does lead in some cases to the mean streets of Greenwich, Connecticut, the loose associations it hard to narrow down one key region.

What Are Tea Partiers Like?

In an extensive piece for the new New Yorker, reporter/political anthropologist Ben McGrath spent time traveling from event to event, observing the tea partiers in their own element. In an attempt to answer the question "who the hell are these people," he explains:

As spring passed into summer, the scores at local Tea Party gatherings turned to hundreds, and then thousands, collecting along the way footloose Ron Paul supporters, goldbugs, evangelicals, Atlas Shruggers, militiamen, strict Constitutionalists, swine-flu skeptics, scattered 9/11 "truthers," neo-"Birchers," and, of course, "birthers"-those who remained convinced that the President was a Muslim double agent born in Kenya. "We'll meet back here in six months," Beck had said in March, and when September 12th arrived even the truest of believers were surprised by the apparent strength of the new movement, as measured by the throngs who made the pilgrimage to the Capitol for a Taxpayer March on Washington, swarming the Mall with signs reading " ‘1984' Is Not an Instruction Manual" and "The Zoo Has an African Lion and the White House Has a Lyin' African!"

How Many Tea Partiers Currently Exist In The Wild?

Due to the shifting demographics of the group and media manipulation of numbers, it's difficult for anthropologists to get an accurate head count. (Some experts have suggested a bag-and-tag program, which may come under advisement closer to election season.)

Mr. McGrath believes the fluid boundaries of allegiance allow for horde membership to skyrocket.

Politics is ultimately a numbers game, and the natural excitement surrounding 9.12 drove crowd estimates upward, from an early lowball figure of sixty thousand, reported by ABC News, into the hundreds of thousands and across the million mark, eventually nearing two million-an upper limit of some significance, because 1.8 million was the figure commonly reported in mainstream or "state-run" media outlets as the attendance at President Obama's Inauguration. "There are more of us than there are of them, and we know the truth," one of the Kentucky organizers, who had carpooled to D.C. with a couple of co-workers from an auto-parts warehouse, told me. The fact that the mainstream media generally declined to acknowledge the parallel, regarding the marchers as a loud and motley long tail of disaffection, and not a silent majority, only hardened their resolve.

Media Matters asked the DC Fire Department for a population estimate of a tea party herd spotted on September 12, 2009. (The date was chosen in line with edicts from their Gods.) The results reported were a bit different:

According to estimates provided by the Washington, D.C., fire department, Malkin and friends were only off by 1,930,000 people. In other words, Malkin, citing fictitious press accounts, led the charge to falsely inflate the size of the crowd by 30 times. Malkin and company, desperate to dress up the tea party event as a mass movement, saw a relatively modest crowd of 70,000 GOP protesters and imagined it was 2 million strong. (She's a dreamer, I suppose.)

Are Tea Partiers A Homogeneous Group?

Well, yes and no.

Though most recent reports document undercurrents of racism and xenophobia (see lyin' African comment, above), Mr. McGrath points to one site's manifesto as proof the tea party protests are striving to be a non-partisan gathering point for all North American Homosapiens.

Spring brought the founding of the Tea Party Patriots, a centralized Web destination for decentralized malcontents, and the start of Glenn Beck's side gig as a social organizer, through his 9.12 Project. The numbers nine and twelve referred to a checklist of principles and values, but their greater significance lay in the allusion to September 11th. "The day after America was attacked, we were not obsessed with Red States, Blue States or political parties," the project's mission statement read. "We want to get everyone thinking like it is September 12, 2001, again." The chosen values were inarguable: things like honesty and hope and courage. Only two of the principles ("I believe in God and He is the center of my life"; "I work hard for what I have and I will share it with who I want to. Government cannot force me to be charitable") indicated any kind of political agenda. Inclusiveness was the point.

Despite their calls for inclusion, some of the chosen values are inherently exclusionary in nature. For those who are atheist, agnostic, non-religious or members of religious traditions that are not monotheistic, this value is alienating. (Muslims, while monotheistic, may be hard pressed to find kinship among the tea party tribe).

In addition, many members appear to be ignorant or mistrustful of those who came before them. McGrath observes:

One historical comparison that some Tea Party champions have made is to the civil-rights movement, and, to the extent that the analogy holds, it may reflect the fact that the Tea Party seems to derive much of its energy from the members of that generation who did not participate in the cultural revolution of the sixties, and are only belatedly coming to terms with social and demographic trends set in motion fifty years ago. Don Seely invited me to his house for coffee the day after the rally at the Kentucky fairgrounds, and showed me his Air Force Commendation Medal, awarded for meritorious service from 1967 to 1971. "At this age, I was so ignorant," he said. "Every once in a while, you'd catch a glimpse on TV of Martin Luther King-all that kind of stuff was going on. I graduated college in December of '66. About a year after I left, that's when all the riots happened. I'm thinking, What is going on?"

The social hierarchy of the Tea Partiers is easily distinguishable. Fair skinned males (many of whom identify as Caucasian) are generally the leaders of the disruptive band, the ones often providing insight and commentary on the movement. Females (like the Liberty Belle and an unnamed middle age woman who was found "hustling for signatures to add to the Tea Party mailing list") do participate in a hunting and gathering capacity, but do not appear to be installed in roles of leadership. (Political figures like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann are contested as many TPers are mistrustful of the GOP establishment.)

Tea partiers of races other than Caucasian are present, though they are a rare sight. African-American tea partiers, as well as those of other (unmentioned) races, have fought to make their presence known in the movement, despite small numbers. However, experts believe the overtone of tea party gatherings is one that encourages and facilitates racist and xenophobic thinking, which would lead to the smaller numbers of non-Caucasian members.


Can Tea Party Society Use Tools?

The answer is yes. The rage that the tea partiers have tapped into resonates across a lot of different sectors - one enterprising group even created a game!

An online video game, designed recently by libertarians in Brooklyn, called "2011: Obama's Coup Fails" imagines a scenario in which the Democrats lose seventeen of nineteen seats in the Senate and a hundred and seventy-eight in the House during the midterm elections, prompting the President to dissolve the Constitution and implement an emergency North American People's Union, with help from Mexico's Felipe Calderón, Canada's Stephen Harper, and various civilian defense troops with names like the Black Tigers, the International Service Union Empire, and CORNY, or the Congress of Rejected and Neglected Youth. Lou Dobbs has gone missing, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh turn up dead at a FEMA concentration camp, and you, a lone militiaman in a police state where private gun ownership has been outlawed, are charged with defeating the enemies of patriotism, one county at a time.

Other tools used by Tea Partiers include online meet-up sites, email chain letters, and of course, Fox News.

Are The Tea Partiers Hostile Or Peaceful In Nature?

Though aggressively wooed by the red-bottomed Elephantidae Politicus, (and ignored or derided by blue Democratus Asinus) Tea Party movement claims no fealty to other species. Indeed, Tea Partiers purport to accept all who are interested, in hopes of spreading their seed far and wide. However, the movements growing numbers are indicative of a changing political tide, one that bodes poorly for Democrats. To wit:

[T]he tea-party movement learned its lesson. So, while tea parties are backing ultraconservative candidates in Florida, Texas, and California, they recognize that strident conservatism doesn't cut it in the blue states. As long as Brown was willing to vote against Obamacare, talk tough on terrorism, and fetishize his pickup truck, activists like the American Liberty Alliance and RedState.com weren't going to spend a lot of time worrying about his being pro-choice or not getting too exercised over gay marriage.

Yet, since the TP clan is composed of various sub-clans, coming to consensus around issues proves challenging. Tea Partyism is at its core a loose collection of people with vastly different ideas. While many in the movement (and GOPers outside of the movement) would love to direct the energy toward political voting, trying to unify the political bacchanal is proving difficult. Rouge wrangler Joe Scarborough explains how the partiers may well cannibalize themselves :

What is going on here? Why are the tea partyers turning on their own? Like any nascent populist movement, the tea party was born of deep skepticism and dissatisfaction with the status quo. As it turns out, many of its most passionate and vocal members seem just as mistrusting of each other as they are of the federal government. This is one reason we have been stuck with two dominant political parties for so long: creating durable political institutions is hard. Most-like Perot's populist wave in the 1990s-fail in their infancy. Riven with internal conflicts and lacking a coherent structure, the tea party's biggest challenge may be trying to deal with its own success. Victories are sure to lie ahead for the group in this fall's midterm elections. After all, without Obama on the ticket, those who vote will be older, whiter, and fewer in number than they were in 2008. And that will likely be bad news for Democratic candidates who were swept into Republican-leaning seats during George W. Bush's disastrous second term.

And:

"The movement rallied around the idea of defying the establishment," said Eric Odom, founder of another tea party network, American Liberty Alliance, which ushered volunteers to Massachusetts in the final days of Brown's winning campaign. "This had far less to do with Scott Brown and far more to do with proving we could coordinate and act in a mass way, showing we could move political mountains. We don't view this as support of a candidate; we view it as opposition to a candidate."


How Should One Approach A Tea Partier?

With caution. If one must engage, experts advise preparing by watching Glenn Beck for talking points, carrying a large piece of poster board, pocketing an Objectivism tract, and bringing a scone along as a peace offering.

Tea Partiers Get A Win: FL GOP Chair Stepping Down [TPM]
Tea Party seek purity and victory [BBC]
The Movement [The New Yorker]
Michelle Malkin and the anatomy of the 2 million protester lie [Media Matters]
Black people can be soulless too: Tea Partier and Fox contributor McGlowan runs for Congress [Jack and Jill Politics]
Counter-Strike [Wikipedia]
Bagging It [New York]
Is The Tea Party Over? [Newsweek]
Still a disorganized 'tea party' [LA Times]