Friday, February 5, 2010

Studying Tea-Baggers

The tea bag movement is big, broad, loud, a bit kooky, damned angry, and manages to combine brutal honesty with absolute dishonesty under one big fat crazy tent.  It's a helluva story from a journalist's point of view, a helluva opportunity from a political operative's point of view, and a helluva topic for research from a scholar's point of view.

Let's focus on the latter.

If you were prepping a study on the movement, let's say a survey, how would you identify someone as a tea-bagger?  By a preference for Earl Grey?  No, that won't work.  Can we simply ask respondents how much they identify with the movement?  Yeah, maybe, and that's a start, but I think you'd be tempted to also list off a bunch of "tea bag" concerns to see what people think about them.  The problem is the movement itself seems more a confederation of frustrated folks who don't all agree on what it is they're frustrated about -- though fears of "big government" may be the single overriding factor.

I think you'd want two or three "identification" items designed to find out how close or attached people feel toward the movement, not unlike how we measure attitudinal proximity or membership to the traditional political parties.  You might also want to tap into the four or five (at least) major themes that tend to bubble up at tea party gatherings, such as big government, but that gets tricky too.  Some are the "Obama is not American" kooks.  While it's fun to ask those kinds of questions, do they tell us much theoretically about the movement itself?  No, from an academic standpoint -- which is different than a journalistic or political approach, we'd want to know what underlying characteristics, even personality constructs, drive someone to become a tea bagger.  I suspect we might see some of the Gamson hypothesis (but also see this brilliant piece of research) stuff going on here, a combination of frustration and anger with high self efficacy, and the roots of that frustration is what academics should be studying in more detail because I think it goes deeper than mere fear of Obama.

But fear is a good place to start.

There are of course lots of scales out there that tap into some of the root issues, from efficacy to trust to -- yup -- fear.  I'm afraid we're missing a lot of this, in part because the major data collection moments have passed.  ANES did its pre- and post-election stuff, but rarely do you find systematic data collection a year or so after an election, so we may find ourselves studying the tea bag movement a year or two after its big moment, relying on memories rather than "in the moment" data collection. And that's too bad.

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