April 18, 2010

Distrust, Discontent, Anger and Partisan Rancor

Section 6: Tea Party and Views of Government Overreach

Over the past year, the Tea Party movement has emerged on the political scene. A majority of the public has heard about the Tea Party protests that have taken place in the U.S. and about a quarter of Americans say they agree with the movement.

Tea Party backers overwhelmingly identify with or lean to the Republican Party and describe their political views as conservative. Virtually all of them express feelings of frustration or anger with the federal government. A large majority of Tea Party backers distrust government and believe it has too much power and control over their lives.

Looking at the public as a whole, nearly half say the federal government threatens their personal rights and freedoms – with three-in-ten saying the government is a major threat. The percentage saying the government is a major threat to their personal rights and freedoms is now higher than when the question was first asked in 1995 and throughout the early 2000s. This shift has come almost entirely from Republicans and independents who lean to the GOP.

Does Federal Government Threaten Personal Rights and Freedoms?

Currently, 30% of Americans say the federal government is a major threat to their personal rights and freedoms. That is up from 18% in October 2003 and more than the previous high of 23% in June 2000. Another 17% now say they see the government as a minor threat. Still, half of the public (50%) says they do not think the government threatens their personal rights or freedoms, little changed from percentage who said this in October 2003 (54%).

There is a substantial partisan and ideological divide about whether the federal government is a major threat to personal rights and freedoms. Currently, far more Republicans and independents who lean Republican say this than did so in 2003 during George W. Bush’s first term as president. By contrast, opinion among Democrats and those who lean Democratic has shifted little since that time.

Nearly half (47%) of conservative Republicans now say the government is a major threat, up from just 13% in 2003. Similarly, more than twice as many moderate Republicans now say the federal government is a major threat to their personal rights and freedoms than did so in 2003 (12% in 2003, 32% now). There also has been a large shift among independents who lean Republican (19% in 1995 to 50% now).

Today, Democrats are far less likely than Republicans to say that the federal government is a threat to their personal rights and freedoms. Less than one-in-five (18%) say the government is a major threat, not much different from the 21% that said this in 2003. And liberal Democrats (15%) are nearly as likely to say this as conservative and moderate Democrats (19%). Similarly, 21% of independents who lean Democratic say the federal government is a major threat to their personal rights and freedoms; 19% said this in 2003.

There also are significant demographic differences in who believes the federal government is a major threat to their personal rights and freedoms. More men (34%) than women (27%) say the government is a major threat. Whites (31%) also are more likely than blacks (23%) to say the federal government is a major threat to their rights and freedoms.

Young people are less likely than others to say the government is a major threat to their personal rights and freedoms. About a quarter (24%) of those under 30 say this, compared with 34% of those ages 30 to 49 and 30% of those 50 and older. Fewer college graduates (24%) than those with high school education or less (34%) say the government is a major threat.

There also are differences in opinion by religious affiliation. White evangelicals are the most likely to say the government threatens their personal rights and freedoms; 42% say the government is a major threat, compared with 30% or less in other religious groups and only 20% of the religiously unaffiliated.

Those who are angry with the federal government are more than twice as likely as those who are frustrated or content to say that the government threatens their personal rights and freedoms. More than six-in-ten (62%) of those who say they are angry see the government as a major threat, compared with 26% of those who are frustrated with the federal government and 12% who are basically content. (For more detailed breakdowns on perceived threat posed by the federal government to personal rights and freedoms, see table on pg. 87)

Secession?

Two-thirds of the public (67%) opposes allowing an American state to secede and become independent from the country if a majority of the people from that state wanted to do this; just a quarter (25%) favor allowing secession. Although views about government have become more negative since the late 1990s, the proportion that favors allowing a state to secede is little changed from the 23% that said this in 1997. Opposition to allowing secession has decreased somewhat from 73% in 1997.

More than a third of independents who lean to the GOP (36%) favor allowing a state to secede. This is more than within any other partisan or ideological group. There are also modest demographic differences on this question. About three-in-ten (29%) people under 50 favor allowing a state to secede, compared with 21% of those 50 and older. Americans with a high school education or less are more likely than those with a college degree to favor this (30% vs. 18%). There are no significant differences in the percentages that favor allowing secession by geographic region.

Who Agrees with The Tea Party Movement?

A majority of Americans (68%) have heard or read about the Tea Party protests that have taken place in the U.S. over the past year; 26% have heard a lot, while 42% have heard a little. Tshree-in-ten have heard nothing at all about these protests. More Republicans (33%) and independents (28%) than Democrats (21%) have heard a lot about the Tea Party protests. Conservative Republicans (39%) and independents who lean to the GOP (41%) are the most likely to have heard a lot about the protests.

Overall, 24% of Americans say they agree with the Tea Party movement, including 9% who agree strongly; 14% say they disagree with the movement. Three-in-ten say they have no opinion, while 31% say they have not heard of the Tea Party movement.

There are strong partisan and ideological differences in views about the movement. Nearly half (45%) of Republicans agree with the Tea Party movement, compared with 26% of independents and only 6% of Democrats. More than half of conservative Republicans (53%) and independents who lean Republican (53%) say they agree with the Tea Party movement, compared with 27% of moderate Republicans. Far fewer in all other partisan and ideological groups say they agree with the movement.

A majority of those under 30 (54%) have not heard about the Tea Party protests, compared with 31% of those ages 30 to 49 and 21% of those 50 and older. Young people also are far less likely to agree with the Tea Party movement. Only 9% of those under 30 agree with the movement, compared with 23% of those ages 30 to 49 and 32% of people 50 and older. (For more detailed breakdowns on opinion about the Tea Party movement, see table on pg. 90)

Which Group Best Reflects Your Views Right Now?

When the public was asked in a separate survey which group best reflects your views right now, 31% say the Democratic Party best reflects their views right now, 17% cite the Republican Party, and 14% say the Tea Party. Far fewer mention the Green Party (4%) or some other group (3%). And more than a quarter (28%) says none of these represents their views.

Half of Republicans (49%) say the GOP best represents their views right now but 28% cite the Tea Party. A plurality of all independents (42%) says none of these currently reflects their views while 17% say the Democratic Party, 16% the Tea Party and 12% the Republican Party. Independents who lean to the GOP are divided – as many say the Tea Party (30%) best reflects their views right now as cite the Republican Party (29%) – and 28% say nobody is representing their views.

Among independents who lean to the Democratic Party, 47% say that party best represents their views and 35% think nobody is representing their views. And about two-thirds (65%) of independents who do not lean to either the Republican or Democratic Party say that none of these groups represents their views. A large majority of Democrats (71%) say the Democratic Party best reflects their views while 14% say none of these groups does.

Demographic Profile of Tea Party Backers

Looking at the 24% of the public who agree with the Tea Party movement, they are decidedly more Republican in partisan identification and more conservative than the general public. In addition, those who agree with the Tea Party movement are more likely to be male, white, affluent, weekly church attenders and to follow national news very closely.

More than eight-in-ten (82%) Tea Party backers either identify as Republicans (53%) or say they are independents who lean Republican (29%). By comparison, 41% of the general public identify as Republicans (28%) or lean to the GOP (13%). And while nearly half (46%) of the public are Democrats or independents who lean to the Democratic Party, only 13% of those who agree with the Tea Party movement say they are Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents.

Nearly three-fourths (72%) of Tea Party backers describe their political views as conservative. By comparison, 41% of the public says their views are conservative. And a plurality of those who agree with the Tea Party movement say they are conservative Republicans (43%).

A majority (56%) of Tea Party backers are men. Men make up 49% of the general public. And although young people comprise 21% of the general public, only 8% of those who agree with the Tea Party are under 30. About eight-in-ten (81%) are non-Hispanic whites, compared with 69% of the general public.

Only 18% of those who agree with the Tea Party movement have family incomes of less than $30,000, compared with 31% of the general public. Close to four-in-ten Tea Party sympathizers (38%) have a high school education or less, compared with 47% of the general public. There are no differences between the public and Tea Party backers in employment status.

More than half (55%) of those who agree with the Tea Party say they follow national news very closely. About three-in-ten (31%) in the general public say the same. Nearly nine-in-ten (87%) are registered to vote, compared with 76% of the general public. About half (51%) of Tea Party backers say they are more patriotic than most, while 33% of the general public say they are more patriotic than most. Three-fourths display the flag at their home, office or on their car, compared with 58% of the public as a whole.

About half (49%) of those who agree with the Tea Party attend church or other religious services at least once a week; 38% of the public attends services weekly. And nearly half (47%) of Tea Party backers have a gun, rifle or pistol in their home, compared with 33% of the general public.

Tea Party Critical of Big Government

Tea Party backers have even more negative views about government than the public more broadly. Fully 43% of those who agree with the Tea Party movement are angry with the federal government, compared with 21% of the general public. Among those who agree strongly, 61% are angry with the government. Similarly, 24% of those who agree with the Tea Party movement say they never trust the government in Washington to do what is right (including 34% who strongly agree with the Tea Party movement); 11% of the general public says the same.

In addition, 73% of Tea Party backers say the federal government threatens their personal rights and freedoms, including 57% who say the government is a major threat. Among those who strongly agree with the movement, 86% say the federal government threatens their personal rights and freedoms and 73% say it is a major threat. By comparison, the general public is divided. Nearly half (48%) say the government threatens their personal rights and freedoms, including 30% who say it is a major threat, while 50% say it does not threaten their rights and freedoms.

Three-fourths of those who agree with the Tea Party movement say the federal government needs very major reform, compared with 53% of the general public. Those who agree with the Tea Party movement are particularly critical about the size and scope of the federal government. A majority (59%) of Tea Party backers feel the bigger problem with government is that it has the wrong priorities, while 32% say it has the right priorities but runs programs inefficiently. By comparison, 38% of the public says the government has the wrong priorities; half (50%) says the government has the right priorities but runs things inefficiently.

A large majority (76%) of Tea Party backers generally believe that federal government programs should be cut back greatly to reduce the power of government, while only 23% say government programs should be maintained to deal with important problems. The public is much more divided in its view; 47% say programs should be cut to reduce the government’s power and 50% says programs should be maintained. And, although 88% of those who agree with the Tea Party think that the federal government being wasteful and inefficient is a major problem, 70% of the public feels the same. About eight-in-ten (82%) Tea Party backers think that the government being “too big and powerful” is a major problem, compared with 52% of the general public.

Three-fourths of those who agree with the Tea Party movement say it is a major problem that the government interferes too much in people’s lives; 46% of the public says the same. Seven-in-ten (71%) say the federal government has a negative effect on their day-to-day lives, compared with 43% of the general public. Tea Party backers are also more likely to agree that the federal government is interfering too much in state and local matters; 83% say this, while 58% of the public thinks the federal government is interfering too much. Similarly, 87% of Tea Party sympathizers agree that the government has gone too far in regulating business and interfering with the free enterprise system, compared with 58% of the public.

Jobs Top Priority for Tea Party Backers and Public

Tea Party backers and the public as a whole both put the job situation at the top of the government’s priority list. A majority (54%) of those who agree with the Tea Party movement say that the job situation should be the highest priority; 49% of the general public agree. But Tea Party backers are more likely than the public to say the budget deficit should be given the highest priority; 32% say this compared with 19% of the general public.

Those who agree with the Tea Party movement are more likely to say the federal government, Congress, the Obama administration and many other institutions have a negative effect on the way things are going in this country today. Fully 90% of those who agree with the Tea Party movement say the federal government has a negative effect, compared with 65% in the general public. Similarly, 86% say Congress has a negative effect on the country; 65% of the public says the same. And while 45% of the public says the Obama administration has a negative effect on the country today, 84% of Tea Party backers think this.

Those who agree with the Tea Party movement also are more likely than the general public to say labor unions, government agencies, the news media and the entertainment industry have a negative effect on the country today. The public and Tea Party backers agree that banks and financial institutions and large corporations have a negative effect on the country today. Still, a majority (56%) of those who agree with the Tea Party movement think it is a bad idea for the government to more strictly regulate the way major financial companies do business. A majority of the public (61%) thinks this is a good idea.

Somewhat more Tea Party backers (56%) than the public overall (43%) say they pay more than their fair share of federal taxes. A greater share (47% vs. 39%) say the same about state taxes.