Even for the most cultivated people, the 19th-century humorist Josh Billings quipped, “it ain’t ignorance causes so much trouble; it’s folks knowing so much that ain’t so.”
Ideally, Plato’s promise that the process of learning would teach us how little we know would apply universally, thus encouraging not only humility but caution, too. Yet when politics is involved, the temptation toward calumny often proves too much.
There is almost certainly no more maligned group in American public life than the Tea Party. Progressives — and many of the Americans they have succeeding in influencing — just know that the movement is chock-full of Bible-thumping, racist, uncaring, poorly educated, narrow-minded, hypocritical, gun-toting, and scientifically illiterate know-nothings. And how do they know this? Well, because the Tea Party must be like this, right?
As it happens, to look more closely into the movement is to be disabused of almost all of the defamations. Facts are stubborn things and care little for partisan advantage, something that Yale law professor Dan Kahan discovered recently when he set out to examine the relationship “between a ‘science comprehension’ scale” he has been developing and the “political outlooks” of American citizens. Kahan’s report is admirably honest. He had, he wrote candidly, expected to see “a modest negative correlation between identifying with the Tea Party and science comprehension” (emphasis is his). Why had he expected this? Because he doesn’t “know a single person who identifies with the Tea Party.” All of his impressions, he conceded, came “from watching cable TV . . . and reading the ‘paper’ (New York Times daily, plus a variety of politics-focused internet sites like Huffington Post & Politico).”
Kahan was genuinely surprised by the results of his study. “Identifying with the Tea Party,” he concluded, “correlates positively (r = 0.05, p = 0.05) with scores on the science comprehension measure.”
Really, this should be no surprise. Study after study and survey after survey show that the favored slurs are, well, slurs. Salon’s Michael Lind — who is, to put it lightly, no fan of the Tea Party’s — allowed this month that the group’s leaders “tend to be highly educated and well-off,” and its members “tend to be more affluent and educated than the general public.” The group cannot, Lind continued, “be explained in terms of abstract ideological extremism, working-class populism or ignorance and stupidity.” Here Lind is merely echoing the data — or, rather, reflecting what the more insufferable among our progressive friends enjoy referring to as the “settled science.”
“Racism,” another preferred charge, is similarly ill-supported. In 2010, UCLA student Emily Ekins surveyed tea-party protest signs, an endeavor that revealed not racism but that
media coverage of tea party rallies over the past year have [sic] focused so heavily on the more controversial signs that it has contributed to the perception that such content dominates the tea party movement more than it actually does.
How many signs were beyond the pale? “5 percent of the total mentioned the president’s race or religion,” the Washington Post wrote in its story about Ekins’s survey, “and slightly more than 1 percent questioned his American citizenship.” A comparison study with some of the anti-Bush protests would be interesting here. Indeed, accusations of bigotry often reveal more about the accusers than the accusees. John McWhorter of Columbia University made the brilliant observation that “the idea that ‘racism’ is behind the Tea Partiers is based on a lazy and vain extension of the term ‘racism’ to meaning ‘that which many black people would not approve of.’” I would only add to McWhorter’s diagnosis — that some engaged in the slander are “lazy” and some are “vain” — that others, such as Victor Goode of the professional victimization website Colorlines and the endlessly boring and monomaniacal Joan Walsh of Salon are so desperate for the insult to be true that they are happy to beclown themselves awkwardly pretending that it is.