Much has been made this past week about a poll (pdf) by NBC and the Wall Street Journal. It seems that virtually every newsroom in America saw fit to report the astonishing results that showed that the Tea Party movement was viewed more favorably than either the Democrats or Republicans. The poll said that the notorious Town Howlers were viewed favorably by 41% of poll respondents, compared to 35% for Democrats and 28% for Republicans.
First of all, it needs to be noted that establishment politicians are currently about as popular as Rush Limbaugh at a nudist colony (I apologize for the mental image that may have generated). I would venture to say that a Swine Flu Party would be better received than today’s Democrats or Republicans. So Tea Baggers haven’t really got much to be proud of in this respect.
What’s more, in case the press hasn’t noticed, there is no such thing as the Tea Party. It has no candidates or policies to compare with any other party. So the pretense of the comparison is dubious at best.
But the biggest cognitive disconnect in this story is that none of the press accounts that I saw bothered to report the results of another question in the same poll:
14a. How much do you know about the Tea Party movement-do you know a great deal about this, a fair amount, just some, very little, or nothing at all?
Know a great deal: 7
Know a fair amount: 22
Know just some: 23
Know very little: 25
Know nothing at all: 23
So 48% of respondents know very little or nothing at all about the Tea Baggers. Boy, they must really be a powerful force in America. I think it’s a lot easier to register positive poll results if half the country hasn’t even heard of you. And this fact was ignored by most of the media as they clamored to position Tea Bagging as a surging movement.
The fact that the Tea Baggers have failed to create a significant presence despite being bankrolled by some of the biggest and wealthiest AstroTurf lobbying organizations in the country (i.e. FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity), and having the promotional backing of Fox News, illustrates just how unappealing most Americans regard that brand of disruptive griping.
This is typical of how the press distorts trends. They make an observation from a narrowly defined (and usually conservative) vantage point and then extrapolate that to the broadest scope of interpretation. For instance, take a look at how Glenn Beck is viewed within the prism of the conventional media. He is profiled in the mainstream press as a phenomenon who has taken the nation by storm. He is said to command an army of followers and an explosively expanding multimedia empire.
But the truth is he has a program on Fox News that is viewed by about three million people. That’s fewer viewers than SpongeBob SquarePants and less than one percent of the population. Fox News itself is a big fish in a small media puddle with an average daily audience of about 1.3 million viewers. And more to the point as regards Beck’s popularity, or lack thereof, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll (pdf) conducted in September revealed that 42% of respondents didn’t even know who he was.
There may be a level of intensity that is driving interest in the rightist agenda, but it is strictly confined to the squeakiest of wheels. That intensity corresponds to the fervor currently on display in Republican circles that now show a significantly higher intention to participate in the coming elections. While this may be a red flag for democrats, it is also a natural pattern for a party that swept into power in the past couple of years and is now experiencing a season of self-examination. There are bound to be disappointments in the interplay of politics. Still, taking all of the data into account, it is fair to conclude that the characterization of a right-wing ascension is an illusion, or more accurately, a delusion of the media. Reports that Beck or Fox News or the Tea Party are assuming greater sway over the public are not borne out by the facts.
In short, when 40 to 50 percent of the public cannot even recognize you or your movement, you are not much of a player. It would be nice if the media would report that.