COLUMN: Go deeper than tea party stereotype

Farm Forum

Last week, professor of law and psychology Dan Kahan added a couple of fascinating posts to the Yale law school Cultural Cognition Project blog. Kahan’s work focuses on the correlation between science comprehension ability and factors like educational attainment, religious conviction and political ideology.

Kahan recently noted that his latest study showed that, to his surprise, those who affiliate with the tea party movement tend to be slightly better than average at science reasoning. But then came the fascinating part of the post: Kahan’s comment that he didn’t know a single person who identified with the tea party and his admission that his opinion of tea partiers came entirely from sources like the New York Times, Politico, the Huffington Post and cable television (though not Fox News).

Kahan isn’t alone. Nate Beeler’s editorial cartoon in last week’s American News featured a fat, goofy, big-mouth sporting a teabag-decorated tricorn: the unsympathetic stereotype of tea partiers that dominates the media.

The problem with stereotypes is that they are self-reinforcing. Adopting a negative racial, ethnic or political stereotype means embracing an “accentuate the negative, eliminate the positive” style that leads straight to bigotry and an inability to see individuals as they truly are. Those who disagree with us must be stupid, misinformed, or malevolent: a bunch of clowns.

In the prevailing media stereotype, tea partiers and their preferred candidates are hicks, rubes, country bumpkins: too unsophisticated to be meddling in politics at all, much less hold political office. Hidden in the stereotype is a germ of truth: tea partiers do represent rural values, and they often are outsiders looking in.

What the stereotype misses (and misses badly) is what the tea party represents in terms of economic policy. Stereotyping the tea party as “extreme right” (without thinking about where tea partiers really stand) usually leads to viewing partiers as tools of Wall Street plutocrats — the exact reverse of the truth. The tea party represents not Wall Street interests, but Main Street and the farms. In many ways, the tea party is just the latest manifestation of an important long-term phenomenon in American politics, the Jeffersonian/Jacksonian/Populist challenge to the urban elites who, most of the time, run the country.

Professor Kahan’s initial blog post quickly went viral, and he began hearing from all sorts of tea partiers, many (of course) complaining about his reliance on obviously biased sources for his view of the tea party.

In a follow-up, Kahan corrected what he insisted were tea party misinterpretations of his study. But he also explained that hearing from real tea partiers was something of an epiphany: He found among them plenty of kindred spirits in the search for truth. “Thanks!” he says to them. “I ‘know’ you now — or know something about you that is of critical importance and that is being hidden from me by myriad pernicious influences, all of which are enemies of enlightened self-government.”

Pretty gracious on his part. I may have to reconsider my stereotype of Yale law professors.

Art Marmorstein, Aberdeen, is a professor of history at NSU. He can be reached at The views are his and do not represent Northern State University.