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August 11, 2010

New study indicates tea party ideas may be out of step with mainstream conservatism

Supporters of the tea party and some media commentators have said that the group’s anger reflects mainstream concerns, but a new study of official tea party websites in almost a dozen states shows that their political concerns lie beyond the American mainstream and the conservative mainstream as well.

“To the extent that contemporary conservatism rests on a belief in small government, the views we found on the websites are not consistent with those of the conservative mainstream as indicated by the National Review,” said Christopher S. Parker, an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington who led the study.

Parker and two of his graduate students examined 31 tea party websites, all with direct links to main tea party groups in 11 states. Five of the states — Colorado, Kentucky, Alabama, Arizona and Georgia — have been the top tea party venues according to a Rasmussen Reports survey conducted in June. (Rasmussen generates daily news reports based on original surveys.) The other six states — Nevada, Ohio, Missouri, Michigan, California and North Carolina — were battleground states in the 2008 election.

At the websites, Parker and his students culled 1,079 articles and postings from this past year, assessing each according to the principal issue addressed.

For comparison, the researchers culled 754 articles and postings published this past year at the National Review Online, which is known for mainline conservative commentary.

Some key findings:

• 14 percent of tea party content focused on the size of government compared to 39 percent of National Review content.

• 24 percent of tea party content focused on conspiratorial themes (for example, socialism or communism overtaking America), compared to 5 percent of National Review content.

• 10 percent of tea party content focused on patriotism and “taking back our country” compared with less than 1 percent of National Review content.

• 19 percent of tea party content consisted of attacks on illegal immigrants, criticism of the gay community, racially derogatory commentary, or personal criticism of President Barack Obama compared with 10 percent of National Review content.

“If the tea party is in the conservative mainstream, as it claims to be, we should see few differences between what is expressed on its sites, and what is expressed on a mainstream conservative site such as the National Review. However, that’s clearly not the case,” Parker said. “The data suggest that tea party ideas are at the margins of conservative political discourse.”

For a copy of the survey, go to http://depts.washington.edu/uwiser/racepolitics.html .

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For more information, contact Parker at csparker@uw.edu  or 206-543-2947.