Inside the Tea Party Echo Chamber

March 16th, 2010 at 11:52 pm | 53 Comments |

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A new FrumForum survey conducted at a Tea Party protest Tuesday shows that Tea Partiers tend to be more financially pessimistic than average Americans, and perceive the United States’ tax burden to be significantly higher than it actually is.

Over the course of our survey, FrumForum interviewed approximately 60 people of the estimated 300-500 protesters assembled on Capitol Hill to protest the healthcare bill currently before the House*. We asked them questions about their perception of current taxation rates and the economy. [See Survey Details here.]

Of concern is not that Tea Partiers answered the questions incorrectly – many people would have struck out on these questions.

Rather, when put together, the results reveal real insights about Tea Party perceptions. For example, they perceive a tax burden that is substantially higher than in reality:

1.       Asked about how much the United States federal government takes out of the economy in taxation, the average Tea Partier approximation was around 42% of GDP, while the figure actually stands at approximately 31.5%.

2.       Asked how much the typical American family earning $50,000 annually paid in income tax, the average guess was around $13,000. The actual tax bracket is 15%, which is $7,500 a year.

Further, the average Tea Party protestor was extremely pessimistic about the economy. 95% surveyed expressed the opinion that the country’s general economic situation is worse off than a year ago. Many said that they believed the economy would continue to deteriorate.

Americans don’t feel nearly as pessimistic. There were no perfect parallels in existing polls, but just a couple months ago, another Gallup survey reported that 63% of Americans were optimistic or very optimistic about the future. Another sign of increasing American optimism, Rasmussen polling’s index of consumer confidence is currently at around 80, significantly higher than the all-time low of 54.7 recorded in March 2009.

Why are they so pessimistic, despite some hopeful signs that the unemployment rate is decreasing and the GDP is rising?

One possible explanation may be that despite these positive figures, Tea Partiers have felt less progress in their personal circumstances. 75% surveyed said that their personal financial situation is worse off than two years ago. Many expressed a belief that their personal situation would continue to deteriorate.

The economy, writ large, appears to be improving, but the Tea Partiers who were driven to protest in desperate economic times have still not felt the recovery – their job situations are likely unimproved, and their home values have not rebounded. As such, they’re more anxious than aggregate economic figures would warrant.


Misperceptions on U.S. Health and Energy Status Quo

The survey also reveals some misperceptions about the status quo on healthcare and energy in the United States. The average Tea Partier placed the United States’ global rank in life expectancy at 11th, when in fact the CIA ranks the United States 49th.

In terms of energy policy, Tea Partiers estimated that the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR) holds about 70 years worth of oil, based on America’s present rates of consumption. Conventional estimates suggest that ANWR holds about a year’s supply of oil, based on the CIA’s estimate of oil consumption.

Why, by proxy, did the Tea Partiers surveyed misjudge the healthcare status quo? And why did they believe that ANWR is more of a panacea for the United States’ energy problem than it actually is?

Part of the answer is their lack of engagement with the mainstream media -– I was reminded many times throughout the protest of my sins as a mainstream reporter. Some protestors were outright hostile, condemning me as a member of the liberal media establishment.

Much like tort reform has become a rallying cry for conservatives hoping to stick a healthcare idea in the air, ANWR has become the cure-all for the United States’ growing energy requirements –- except neither are sustainable solutions for the future.

This may be because many Tea Partiers scorn traditional media outlets, instead focusing on the opinionized reporting of outlets they already agree with, such as WorldNetDaily, RedState, and Fox News. This creates an echo chamber that exaggerates the benefit of small solutions like tort reform and hyperbolizes genuine problems like the tax burden.

Tea Partiers feel the weight of the economy’s collapse on their home’s diminished value, on their threatened or absent paychecks, and on the well-being of their families. But their perceptions of the problems facing the United States and the solutions required to fix it are off –- and it won’t change without a willingness to engage with mainstream sources of news and information.

*To be sure, this survey lacked a control group and a statistically significant sample, but based on our estimates, we surveyed between 11% and 19% of the protesters on Capitol Hill. It is perhaps more valid to treat the results as that of a focus group, and a general contribution to the understanding of the Tea Party movement.

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