From Juan Williams at The Wall Street Journal:
There is danger for Democrats in recent attempts to dismiss the tea party movement as violent racists deserving of contempt. Demonizing these folks may energize the Democrats' left-wing base. But it is a big turnoff to voters who have problems with the Democratic agenda that have nothing to do with racism.
Putting a racial lens on the tea party activists may also help Democrats by painting congressional Republicans into a corner as debate begins on immigration reform. Hispanic voters are going to be looking at Republicans and their tea party supporters for evidence of racism in any effort to block reform.
But Democrats cannot win elections without capturing the votes of independent-minded swing voters. And that is where writing off the tea party as a bunch of racist kooks becomes self-destructive. The tea party outrage over health-care reform, deficit spending and entitlements run amok is no fringe concern. And it is insulting to all voters to suggest that criticism of President Obama, even by people who want to throw him out of office, is motivated by racism.
It is a fact that the tea party is an overwhelmingly older, white and suburban crowd. It is true that Republicans in Congress are almost completely white. And it is also true, according to some black and gay Democrats, that a tea party rally against health-care reform at the Capitol degenerated into ugly scenes in which racial and homophobic epithets were used and spit flew on some members of Congress. There are suspicions that tea party anger boiled over into the spate of personal threats against Democrats who voted for the health-care bill.
That is despicable and deserving of condemnation. And the leaders of the tea party movement have to be careful about rhetoric that feeds fringe, militia-type anger that leads to violence.
Yet opposition to health-care reform from the tea party is not based on racism but self-interest. The older, whiter segment of the American demographic was at the heart of opposition to the president's health-care proposal because they feared cuts in their Medicare benefits or taxes hikes eroding their income.
Tea party activists are surprisingly mainstream when it comes to their grievances about politics. They fit right in with most American voters who tell pollsters the country has been headed in the wrong direction under both Presidents Bush and Obama. A Pew poll in early March found 71% of Americans "dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country today." Republicans and Democrats in Congress have low ratings —23% and 31% approval respectively, according to Pew.
A Fox poll in February found that 59% say they don't trust the federal government. A CNN poll the same month reported results that suggest 56% are well beyond mere mistrust: They agree that the federal government is "so large and powerful that it poses an immediate threat to rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens."
Tea party style discontent appears also to be an accurate representation of voter unhappiness—across political and racial lines—with banks and financial institutions. Pew reports finding 48% saying they are "angry" over the government bailout for institutions that "made poor financial decisions." Overall, Pew found 68% of Americans view these big-money institutions unfavorably.
When Pew asked Americans in February about the tea party they found 33% had a favorable opinion and 25% an unfavorable view. A large number of respondents didn't rate the tea party or had never heard of them.
The tea party is not the problem. Whether you like them or not they do seem to have captured the political angst in the electorate, without regard to skin color.
Where race comes into this picture of American political discontent is that a majority of whites, 52% according to a Gallup poll last month, say they see health-care reform as helping the poor, and that means lots of racial minorities. Only 20% of whites said the health-care reform will help their families. Majorities of Blacks and Hispanics, however, see the bill as helping their families.
That racial divide over health-care reform is exacerbated by the recession's tremendous damage to employment for blue-collar workers. Black unemployment remains nearly double unemployment among whites (16.2% to 9.7%), but that does not diminish the economic and emotional devastation being felt by whites, who are still the majority of the population and the majority of voters.
White men, in particular, got pushed out of nearly half of all jobs lost during the downturn, and blue-collar white men lost about a third of those disappearing jobs.
That is a key shift in this recession—white men, notably working-class white men, being hit hard and concerned that their needs are not a priority in Washington. A top White House official told me recently that working-class white men are going through today the kind of economic pain, and the social breakdown that comes with it, that black men went through in the recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
This all makes for populist anger, embodied in the tea party movement, at politicians who are not focused on the jobs agenda. The politician at the top of the totem pole right now is Barack Obama. He is black. But the relevant point to critics white and black is not his skin color but the persistent high unemployment rate and the government's focus on Wall Street bailouts and health-care reform.