Tea for Two: The Split Personality of the Tea Party

February 9th, 2011 by Sean Wojcik

Prior 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 pattern found for conservatives.  That is, they reported a relatively equal reliance on the foundations of Harm, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, and Purity when making moral judgments—unlike libertarians, who typically show weaker endorsements of all five foundations.  Additionally, Tea Party supporters reported high moral sensitivity to economic (but not lifestyle) liberty, and conceptualized fairness as equity/proportionality rather than as equality.

Although the movement’s political identity is still developing, Tea Party supporters’ scores on all of these moral foundations predicted a relatively coherent set of political attitudes.  Their strong moral valuations of both economic liberty and equity/proportionality are consistent with the movement’s core economic principles, and their low reliance on lifestyle liberty is consistent with the traditionally conservative viewpoints we observed across almost all social issues.

However, caution should be exercised before labeling the Tea Party as the rebranded base of traditional conservatism.  All of the above analyses were conducted with YourMorals visitors who indicated strong support for the Tea Party movement.  More recent data that we’ve collected in the past few months indicates that individuals who actually attend Tea Party rallies and events (under 30% of supporters in our data) show a strikingly different set of moral values than those described above.

Consider the following graph of the Moral Foundations Questionnaire.  Here, individuals who attended Tea Party events are clearly distinct from conservatives, endorsing all five foundations at low levels, just like true libertarians.

We already know that Tea Party supporters highly value economic liberty, but not lifestyle liberty.  However, those who actually attend Tea Party events appear to value both forms of liberty, much like true libertarians.

Do these moral sensitivities to both kinds of liberty predict specific attitudes toward social policies?  The answer appears to be yes.  Compared to conservatives, those who attend Tea Party events are more likely to support policies that enhance lifestyle liberty, including the choice to have an abortion, the legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage, and favoring immigration.

Why might those who attend Tea Party events differ from the majority of its supporters on these key political issues?  One explanation is that the Tea Party movement is not, and never has been, a monolithic entity.  Instead, we see somewhat of a “split” personality.  The movement’s emphasis on its economic philosophy—rather than its largely undefined social philosophy—has facilitated the union of a core group of true libertarians with a growing base of traditionally conservative supporters.  Because this young political movement is still developing, it will be interesting to watch and see if/how continued growth may influence the future of the Tea Party’s morality, and which side of this “split” personality will emerge from the Tea Party’s moral mind.

Sean Wojcik

Posted in conservatives, equality, equity, fairness, libertarians, moral foundations, moral psychology, political ideology, political psychology, social psychology, yourmorals.org5 Comments »
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5 Responses to “Tea for Two: The Split Personality of the Tea Party”

  1. emilyekins says:

    Excellent analysis!

  2. [...] back when political watchers and morality-watchers were debating whether the tea party movement could survive an alleged rift between libertarian [...]

  3. [...] attend Tea Party events and rallies express moral values and policy preferences that are generally consistent with libertarianism.  I also found that the larger demographic of those who claim to “support the Tea Party [...]

  4. jason taylor says:

    Abortion is generally argued from a harm/care argument. It is about the babies lifestyle liberty.

  5. Extremely interesting analysis. There appears to be logical room for a cluster that is like liberals, only backwards: low harm/fairness, high purity. Thank you for the hard work in generating this.

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