A hot item on the New York Times website is an op-ed by Harvard professor Robert Putnam (who drew a lot of media notice for his nonfiction book "Bowling Alone") and Notre Dame professor David Campbell called "Crashing the Tea Party." The professors earn their Times real estate by regurgitating the CBS-Times polling on the alleged growing unpopularity of the Tea Party, and calling the Tea Party brand "toxic" for the GOP.
But Putnam and Campbell bring their own data, which purports to find that the Tea Party is even less popular than atheists and Muslims, that they're defined by "low regard for immigrants and blacks," and that their more common characteristic is their theocratic tendences to "mingle religion and politics" which they allege is causing the crash in public support:
[I]n data we have recently collected, the Tea Party ranks lower than any of the 23 other groups we asked about — lower than both Republicans and Democrats. It is even less popular than much maligned groups like “atheists” and “Muslims.” Interestingly, one group that approaches it in unpopularity is the Christian Right.
The professors theorize that the Tea Party is just like the anti-war McGovernite left in 1972 which damaged the Democratic brand. (The McGovern nomination did signal liberal dominance of the Democratic Party, but a Democrat would remind the professors they didn't exactly suffer in the 1974 midterm elections, and elected Carter president in 1976. But their image of softness on defense has often damaged their presidential electability.)
So what do Tea Partiers have in common? They are overwhelmingly white, but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do.
More important, they were disproportionately social conservatives in 2006 — opposing abortion, for example — and still are today. Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics. And Tea Partiers continue to hold these views: they seek “deeply religious” elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates. The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government.
This inclination among the Tea Party faithful to mix religion and politics explains their support for Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. Their appeal to Tea Partiers lies less in what they say about the budget or taxes, and more in their overt use of religious language and imagery, including Mrs. Bachmann’s lengthy prayers at campaign stops and Mr. Perry’s prayer rally in Houston.
Yet it is precisely this infusion of religion into politics that most Americans increasingly oppose. While over the last five years Americans have become slightly more conservative economically, they have swung even further in opposition to mingling religion and politics. It thus makes sense that the Tea Party ranks alongside the Christian Right in unpopularity.
On everything but the size of government, Tea Party supporters are increasingly out of step with most Americans, even many Republicans. Indeed, at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, today’s Tea Party parallels the anti-Vietnam War movement which rallied behind George S. McGovern in 1972. The McGovernite activists brought energy, but also stridency, to the Democratic Party — repelling moderate voters and damaging the Democratic brand for a generation. By embracing the Tea Party, Republicans risk repeating history.
Putnam and Campbell couldn't more perfectly align themselves with the secular leftists at the Times. We'll try not to question why a professor from Notre Dame would be championing the get-God-out-of-our-politics Left.