Tea Party’s Planned Parenthood Attack Should Not Have Been a Surprise

In a Politico column, Ari Melber writes that people shouldn’t be surprised by the GOP attack on Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights; after all, he notes, the Tea Party “is still a fundamentally conservative cohort that backs a conservative social agenda,” despite its emphasis on fiscal issues.

Melber is right, but surprisingly, he cites only the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s polling from February 2011 in support of his (correct) statement that Tea Partiers oppose abortion rights at higher rates than the GOP as a whole. What Melber neglects is important data that pre-dated the 2010 election and which gave not just clues, but enormous red flags that the Tea Party was motivated not just by an economic agenda, but a religious one as well.

Melber writes:

Tea party adherents are actually more religion-driven and more anti-abortion than the party they are supposedly upending. Pundits keep asking whether the Republican establishment is using the tea party for the same old GOP issues. It’s the other way around. These activists are just a more concentrated, more conservative version of the GOP. Of course, their big budget battle included a social agenda.

That agenda was dormant during the 2010 election, so it was hard to see. The base was too busy kicking ass on health care and economics. Just as Coco Chanel famously told fashionistas, “Always remove one accessory before leaving the house,” the tea party left one big issue at home before taking its campaign on the road.

The social agenda was not, however, hard to see. It was the way reporters covered the Tea Party that made the agenda hard to see. In covering Glenn Beck’s inaugural 9/12 March in 2009, I found plenty of anti-abortion rhetoric, activists, and signage, expressed as opposition to “ObamaCare” and its supposed expansion of abortion. At the Values Voters Summit a week later, I met Tea Party activists who had received their political training with religious right groups, and in March 2010, reported on how a resurrected fallen mega-star of the religious right, Ralph Reed, was looking to transform the withering Christian Coalition infrastructure in the states into Tea Party/religious right powerhouses.

As I noted last June, reacting to a raft of media coverage that religious right political players were expressing concern that the Tea Party was insufficiently addressing its issues:

A lot of the media pondering over whether the tea party can make common cause with the religious right has focused on the tea party’s apparent lack of interest in taking on the abortion issue. But that overlooks anecdotal evidence that religious right activists like Ralph Reed, participants in the Values Voters Summit and in the Freedom Federation are looking to form coalitions with tea partiers, and, as Joanna Brooks has discussed here, the influence of Mormon belief on the rhetoric of Glenn Beck.

No doubt there are conflicts between some Tea Party leaders and religious right leaders over bringing religion and “social issues” to the fore. But without the long view of what the conservative movement is about, and how religion motivates it, reporters tended to take at face value complaints from religious right and anti-choice activists that the Tea Party was insufficiently emphasizing their issues. Those complaints are short-term, not long-term; in other words, the complainers are trying to drive media narratives for an election cycle and a Congressional session, and are jockeying for valuable press coverage of their activities.

A groundbreaking October 2010 study showed that the Tea Party had an “outsized” proportion of religious right activists as its base. The Public Religion Research Institute scooped Pew with this important study, which should have demonstrated that the Tea Party’s interest in restricting abortion rights was not a mere accessory. In that October survey, PRRI found that Tea Partiers “are mostly social conservatives, not libertarians on social issues. Nearly two-thirds (63%) say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, and less than 1-in-5 (18%) support allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry.” (emphasis in original) As I reported in October when PRRI released its study:

According to the survey, nearly half of all respondents who considered themselves part of the tea party movement also considered themselves part of the religious right. “Among the more than 8-in-10 (81%) who identify as Christian within the Tea Party movement,” the survey found, “57% also consider themselves part of the Christian conservative movement.” One third of tea partiers are white evangelical Christians, [PRRI President Robert] Jones said the survey showed, compared to one in five voters in the general population. But one in three Republicans are white evangelical Christians, too, more proof that supporters of the tea party and the GOP — despite the tea party claims to be an outside force — share many of the same beliefs.

Election night 2010 might have been seen as a victory for the Tea Party. But it really was a victory for the religious right, and that shouldn’t have been a surprise.