Tea partiers defy expectations

I attended the tea party movement's Tax Day rally near the White House in the way that Mick Jagger in an old Rolling Stones tune "went down to the demonstration to get my fair share of abuse."

If you judge the movement by much of its news coverage, I am what the tea partiers are supposed to hate. I am black. I work in what Rush Limbaugh calls the "lame-stream media." I don't think President Obama's health care overhaul is a "government takeover" of health care.

Yet I am happy to report I was not abused, unless you count the whiny voice of Victoria Jackson, a former "Saturday Night Live" cast member now trying to be the tea party movement's Lady Gaga.

But there were normal people, too. For example, I met Chicagoan Fred Groat, a retired business executive who lives "surrounded by lakefront liberals" on the city's north side. He voted for President George W. Bush, but now calls Bush a "RINO, Republican in Name Only," for running up the deficit and failing to "secure the borders."

He's not alone. Tea parties lack much in the way of formal structure, leadership or agendas because their movement is an orphan, unified by a shared sense of abandonment by Republicans and cluelessness by Democrats -- most of whom probably would say that the feeling is mutual.

As much as media portray the tea party as something new, spontaneous political movements have been springing up, making noise for a few years, then fading away since before the founding of the Republic. This one just happens to be fired up during the first term of the nation's first black president.

That makes it easy to suspect the tea party movement is racist. But polls and conversations with tea partiers tend to confirm my sense that race brings no more than a teeny cup to this tea party.

Looming larger in their lives are issues like money, culture and a leave-us-alone view of government -- until, of course, they bump up against an issue on which they can use government's help.

A new CBS/New York Times poll released just before Tax Day found that the 18 percent of the public who identified themselves as tea party supporters tend to be above-average in income and education. They are still more male, white and conservative than the nation's political center, the poll shows. But they're not too far out of the mainstream to be a force in the midterm elections.

Yet, despite their rightward leanings, the Times/CBS poll found tea party supporters were not totally hostile to government. More than 60 percent said they think Social Security and Medicare are worth the cost to taxpayers, most send their children to public schools, and most describe the amount they paid in taxes this year as "fair." You wouldn't guess that from what rally speakers were saying on Tax Day.

Maybe that's because 64 percent of tea partiers in the poll said the Obama administration had raised taxes or kept them the same. That's about twice the percentage of Americans overall. Either way, it's wrong. In fact, economic stimulus legislation, much maligned on the right, resulted in a tax cut on 2009 tax returns. That helped bring taxes to their lowest levels in 60 years, according to William Gale, co-director of the Tax Policy Center and director of the Retirement Security Project at the Brookings Institution.

No wonder President Obama when asked about the Tax Day protests said, "You would think they would be saying, 'Thank you.'" Maybe you would, if the tax cuts received as much airtime as the administration's critics do. But it's not easy to bring people to the streets in favor of what a White House is doing right.

Contact Page, a Chicago Tribune columnist, at cpage@tribune.com.