A moral profile of Tea Party supporters

October 16th, 2010 by Sean Wojcik

Over the past several months, the Tea Party movement has emerged as a national force in American politics.  Its supporters are often characterized as belonging to one of two distinct groups: either as small-government libertarians, or as the disenfranchised and rebranded base of traditional conservativism.  Although there is a growing body of knowledge on the psychology of both conservatives and libertarians (see Iyer et al.’s libertarianism paper, under review), little is known about the moral and psychological underpinnings of support for the Tea Party.

Here at yourmorals.org, we have begun to address this question.  Over the past few months, we asked over 1400 visitors to indicate the strength of their support for the Tea Party movement.  Of the 9% who scored near the top of our scale, approximately two-thirds had previously identified as conservatives and about one-third had identified as libertarians.

So how do the moral values of these Tea Party supporters compare to conservatives and libertarians?  We found that they indeed showed a mix of both conservative and libertarian moral values.  On the foundations of Harm and Fairness, TP supporters recreated the libertarian pattern that is described in detail by Iyer et al. – that is, they scored even lower than conservatives on both of these foundations.  However, TP supporters showed a heightened sensitivity to the foundations of Ingroup, Authority, and Purity, forming a pattern that is nearly identical to that of conservatives.  The finding that TP supporters are low on Harm and Fairness, and high on Ingroup, Authority, and Purity, clearly distinguishes them from traditional libertarians in the moral domain.  Instead, they appear to endorse a slightly inflated form of traditional conservative moral beliefs.

We also examined how Tea Party supporters scored on several other moral dimensions, which were measured with newer versions of our Moral Foundations Questionnaire.  Again, they looked very similar to conservatives.  That is, they scored low on equality and high on equity (conservative “karma”); they had high scores on retribution and national sovereignty, with low scores on universalism; and they scored high on economic—but not lifestyle—liberty.

We have collected data about our users’ attitudes toward a number of current political issues and events.  So do Tea Party supporters’ scores on the moral dimensions predict specific attitudes about social and political issues?  In short, yes.

  • Their high scores in economic liberty—and their conception of fairness as equity rather than equality—are likely related to their disapproval of bank regulation, their support for offshore drilling, and the perceived unimportance of healthcare reform.

  • Tea Party supporters’ moral sensitivity to national sovereignty and Ingroup is consistent with their negative attitudes toward immigration, even specifically in their support for police verification of immigration status in Arizona, as well as their opposition to the mosque being built near Ground Zero.
  • Their conservative stances on several social issues (e.g., same sex marriage, marijuana legalization, abortion) reflect their low moral valuations of lifestyle liberty, unlike traditional libertarians.

As can be seen in the chart above, TP supporters score nearly identically to conservatives on all of these social issues, and are clearly distinct from true libertarians, who score similarly to liberals.

As might be expected, Tea Party supporters also showed consistently unfavorable views about President Obama.  They were also most likely to believe he was born in another country, and they were the most likely to believe he was a Muslim.  Their scores on these measures were consistently lower than both libertarians and conservatives.

Our investigation into the psychology of support for the Tea Party, like the Tea Party movement itself, is still in its early stages. We are still collecting data on these topics, and these charts are only a sneak peek of our developing findings.  We are currently investigating the potential role of several additional factors in predicting Tea Party support, including attitudes about economic fairness, racial identity, and behavioral participation in the movement.

However, the current data paints a relatively clear picture of how Tea Party supporters compare to other conservatives and libertarians: their values are closely aligned to those of traditional social conservatives, but with an inflated investment in economic freedoms that occasionally resembles libertarianism.  Although the Tea Party movement is anything but a monolithic group with a single identity, the clear moral and psychological underpinnings that predict support for the movement will be a continued topic of investigation here at yourmorals.

Sean Wojcik

Posted in conservatives, difference between democrats and republicans, differences between republicans and democrats, empathy, equality, equity, fairness, health care, health care reform, healthcare, justice and fairness, liberals, liberals and conservatives, libertarians, moral foundations, moral psychology, political ideology, political psychology, purity, Purity/Sanctity/Disgust, social psychology, unpublished results, yourmorals.org3 Comments »
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3 Responses to “A moral profile of Tea Party supporters”

  1. [...] first two foundations. Interestingly, the blog on Haidt’s research website, yourmorals.org, concludes instead that tea partiers are more like social conservatives with a libertarian-like emphasis on [...]

  2. [...] to November’s midterm elections, I blogged about the moral and psychological predictors of support for the Tea Party movement.  Overall, their pattern of responses on the Moral Foundations Questionnaire closely resembled the [...]

  3. No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.

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