In today's news that shouldn't be surprising but is, check out this story that was on the front page of the NY Times today.
Tea Party supporters are wealthier and more well-educated than the general public, and are no more or less afraid of falling into a lower socioeconomic class, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.
I have finally dug through the giant pile of books on my nightstand to start reading Andrew Gelman's extremely important examination of the realities behind the stereotypes Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do. And the book was inspired by the media stereotype that conservatives are less wealthy and educated than liberals. Conservatives have very successfully pushed forward this narrative about the "liberal elite"---in their worldview, liberalism was invented by over-privileged white people and then foisted on the rest of the Democratic coalition, characterized as illiterate sheep. Gelman dives deep into the reasons why this narrative had any traction at all in the mainstream media. It wasn't just malice, but it's sort of complicated, so you should read the book. (It's a quick, breezy read with LOTS of graphs. Seriously, there's like two a page.) But the book definitively answers the perplexing question of our time, which is, "Why do poor people in red states vote against their economic interests?" The answer is, quite simply, they don't. There is no paradox. To quote Gelman: "If poor people were a state, they would be 'bluer' even than Massachusetts; if rich people were a state, they would be as 'red' as Alabama, Kansas, the Dakotas, or Texas."
Of course, I don't think the stereotype of tea baggers have ever been that they're poor. But I do think there's a supposition that they're lower or middle middle class, and not well-educated. That's based on the illiterate signage, the bad clothes, the obnoxious pride in having bad taste, and of course the mind-bendingly stupid shit they believe. And that's not just regarding the paranoid fantasies about Obama, but more straightforwardly asinine stuff, like that Medicare isn't government health care. It's easy to assume that these folks are just uneducated, and that they'd wise up if they got educated. And of course, the assumption that lack of education correlates with lower income is something that comes from demonstrable facts, so it's easy to leap to thinking the tea baggers are less wealthy than the liberal elite they carp about.
But wait!, you may say, look, I hate that "liberal elite" shit as much as you do, but they have a point. I mean, are you going to tell me the East Coast isn't thick with white liberals who dress nicely, have strong opinions on coffee drinks and wine, and all have fancy college degrees and most likely graduate degrees?
Well, of course. Gelman actually talks about that in the book, and how that impacts the image of the "liberal elite". The data does show that a lot of the professional class leans towards the Democrats. Lawyers, educators, journalists, high level bureaucrats, those sort of people. But those people are far from the majority of college-educated people, and a lot of the time, their salaries are actually lower than the average for people of their education levels, because they swapped out money-making for meaningfulness in their careers. And they cluster where the jobs are. And they socialize with each other. And they begin to think their circle is bigger and more meaningful than it is. Since journalists come from this group of people, they have a megaphone to perpetuate their own stereotypes. And since conservative journalists and pundits live in this world, they develop an outrageously stupid narrative about how they're so oppressed because everyone in their small slice of the world thinks of them as the dweebs.
What's forgotten in all this is that most college-educated people don't get degrees in journalism, philosophy, literature, or public policy and then go on to have careers in media or law. Anyone who's worked at a college can tell that half the students at any given time are business majors. And then you have computer science and all those other majors with a direct career path laid out for you. And guess what! People with those degrees start making more money right out of the gate. According to this article, the most lucrative degrees are engineering, computer science, and business, and the least are all on the liberal arts end of the scale. The "liberal elite" are poorer than the people sneering at them. Which isn't to say that the conservatives who sneer at the liberal elite don't feel the real jealousy that crackles right under the surface of their self-righteous pose. I think we're right to see that they envy the cultivation of taste and more free-wheeling sexuality of the "liberal elite". Personally, I've seen more blog posts than I care to count from conservatives griping about how liberal blogs think they're so cool, but blah blah they're lazy and worthless.
And that's just talking about this particular slice of the pie. When you look at the bigger pie of the whole country, then the fact that tea baggers are richer and more educated than the rest of the country should give you a "no duh" moment. If it looks like the tea baggers are a bunch of privileged cry babies who don't want to share, then well, you know what they say about quacking like a duck. These aren't the economically stressed people lashing out that some might hope. The people who are getting hit the hardest in this recession are working class people without college degrees. You know, most of the country?
Calling the tea baggers "populist" is something conservative pundits do just to confuse the issue. And it works, because even though tea baggers are, in reality, highly privileged people who are motivated by a mean urge to sneer at and beat down the people they think are beneath them, they also come across as giant fucking morons. Which they are! But alas, the problem has nothing to do with lack of education. They have plenty of degrees and access to learning. But you can lead a horse to water, you know?
No, tea baggers believe stupid shit because they want to. It's willful ignorance. They spin outrageous theories because they know that the naked truth about what they believe would make them look like giant bigots and big meanies. So, instead of saying, "I don't want health care reform because I like a system where poor people are shut out because that means I don't have to see them in my doctor's office," they start yelling about the slide into socialism. Instead of saying, "I'm an incredibly selfish person who wants to keep my government-funded Medicare, but I don't want to see that single mom down the street get health insurance because she's a slut and I want to see her suffer," they say that Obama's trying to take their Medicare and that's socialism. They're not confused because they were badly educated and don't have a grasp on critical thinking. In fact, I think a lot of us would be surprised to find that the person hollering ignorant shit about Obama's birth certificate often turns around and is highly competent at a job that requires the cognitive skills they don't bring to their politics. They're willfully ignorant, and this distinction should never be forgotten when trying to understand them.