This just in: VA Tea Partiers not as racist as other Tea Partiers

As a political scientist, my job includes keeping an eye on the latest academic journals for new ideas, arguments, and data. I just came across an article in last month's PS: Political Science and Politics (paywall for full read) that looks back on the 2013 Virginia election.

A team of researchers, including Christopher Newport's Quentin Kidd, treats the election like an experiment. The Republicans nominated two conservative ideologues for top state offices: white Ken Cuccinelli and black E.W. Jackson. This pairing presented an opportunity to measure what they call "racial resentment." Would Tea Party supporters, supposedly motivated by race to oppose Obama and his Kenyan-Islamic-Socialist-Hawaiian agenda, avoid voting for Jackson because of his race? According to these guys, no way:

There was no significant gap between Tea Party support for Cuccinelli and Jackson, and Tea Party supporters were far more likely to cast ballots for both candidates than they were to choose one or the other. In fact, we found that racial resentment is positively associated with support for Jackson.

Case closed? Well, not exactly. Other studies suggest that racial resentment plays some part in Tea Party ideology, including this 2014 study in Social Science Research. It has always seemed hard for me to believe that Obama's race has nothing to do with such vehement opposition. Sure, our politics is now polarized, but the sheer volume of birther conspiracies is just too weird to blame on Obama's liberalism alone.

So what to make of this? A couple of things may be going on here:

  • Jackson was SO pure a conservative ideologue that he could have overwhelmed any racial resentment that would lead people to oppose him. It's not hard to find online lists of Jackson's "5 most outrageous comments" and "10 most anti-gay statements." (Of course, the Cooch was no slouch either.) So it's not like there were ANY doubts about his conservative cred that might lead Tea Party voters to leave him off their ballots.
  • The whole "Tea Party = racist" argument has never been as simple as critics seem to imply. Social movements are immensely complicated beasts, with competing ideas and stories and motivations. Standard media practice for reporting on movements is to identify the weirdest elements of a diverse group and then play them up. So critics may be right to point out the worst elements of the Tea Party, but a few racist signs do not mean the entire movement thinks Obama is a monkey. The Tea Party represents people with real concerns and problems; race is part of the mix, but not anywhere near the whole picture. So people with racial resentments could still have recognized that Jackson was one of them, and voted for him despite any racial concerns.

One thing is sure: Jackson continues to make outrageous claims, including suggesting this week that Obama's mild rebukes of Christianity at the National Prayer Breakfast amounted to aiding and abetting America's enemies. Never change, EW!