The "Tea Party" is less a classic political movement than a frustrated state of mind.
A year and a half after the idea of a Tea Party burst into view, three of 10 Americans describe themselves in the USA TODAY/Gallup Poll as Tea Party supporters — equal to the number who call themselves Republicans — though many of them acknowledge they aren't exactly sure what that allegiance means.
"It's a party opposed to the idea of parties," says Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian whose book about the movement, The Whites of Their Eyes, is scheduled to be published in October. The Tea Party reminds her more of a religious revival than a political movement. She compares it to the Second Great Awakening in the 1830s, a religious resurgence that helped fuel temperance and abolitionism.
Their faith in the Founding Fathers is a signature of the movement. Citing links to the Revolution has been a mainstay of American politics since the nation's beginnings, Lepore says, but the way the Tea Party uses those symbols and language is original. "It is a fundamentalist way of thinking of the past: The founding documents are gospel; they come alive for us," she says.
For Rick Barber, a Tea-Party-backed congressional contender in Alabama, the Founding Fathers literally come to life. One video on his campaign website shows him talking to a character dressed as Abraham Lincoln as he likens taxation to pay for bailouts and health care as "slavery." Another features him sitting at a table in a tavern, talking to characters dressed as Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams and George Washington.
After Barber describes the progressive income tax and health care bill as "tyrannical," an angry George Washington growls, "Gather your armies."
Many Tea Party supporters speak of the Founders in familiar terms.
"We've been running deficits for years, and we've been saying we're doing it to win the Cold War or to fight terrorism and fight poverty," says Michael Towns, 33, a linguist from Tallahassee who was among those surveyed. "I think our Founding Fathers are rolling in their graves because they never would conceive that we would do this."
"This country was actually founded that we worked to be represented without taxation," says Charlene Barber, 62, a nurse from West Blocton, Ala., who is pursuing a psychology degree. "I'd love to hear what the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and Constitution would have to say about this health care bill."
Who they are
Seven demographic characteristics of Tea Party supporters:
78% are Republicans or independents who lean
77% are non-Hispanic whites.
69% are conservatives.
62% are married.
56% are men.
47% are 55 or older.
23% are under 35.
What they believe
Seven defining attitudes of Tea Party supporters:
92% believe the federal government debt is a very serious/extremely serious threat to the nation's future well-being.
90% believe terrorism is a very/extremely serious threat to the nation's future well-being.
90% are dissatisfied with the way things are going in this country.
87% disapprove of the job congressional
85% believe the size and power of the federal government are a very/extremely serious threat to the nation's future well-being.
83% say most members of Congress don't deserve re-election.
83% say President Obama doesn't deserve re-election.
Source: USA TODAY/Gallup Polls taken May 24-25 and June 11-13 of 697 Tea Party supporters. Margin of error +/-5 percentage points. Analysis by Jim Norman.