Tea Party. Mention the words anywhere these days, and youâ€™ll probably get a vehement reaction. Youâ€™ll also hear stereotypes of the people involved.
Which makes the latest CBS News/New York Times poll quite interesting.
The pollâ€™s myriad questions and deft distinctions (for instance, separating Tea Party activists from Tea Party members) yielded an in-depth look at the movement. Overall, the data confirm the popular image of Tea Partiers. Solid majorities are white, male, and conservative. They are angry about a variety of issues and really dislike the president.
But before you buy all the popular images of Tea Partiers, check this out:Â
- 37 percent have college degrees, substantially more than the national average (25 percent).
- 56 percent make more than $50,000 in annual household income, again higher than the national average.
- While they like Sarah Palin, a pluralityâ€”47 percentâ€”do not think sheâ€™d make an effective president.
I donâ€™t want to make too much of these findings; they donâ€™t make the Tea Party exactly a bastion of liberalism. But they remind me, yet again, how often I construct a simplistic image of a certain group (or absorb the simplistic media image) and generalize it to all members. Iâ€™ve done it with born-again Christians; now, it appears, Iâ€™ve done it with Tea Partiers.
The problem with these images, or stereotypes, is that they prevent dialogue. For one thing, why talk with Tea Partiers if theyâ€™re all angry and misapply buzzwords like â€œsocialismâ€ at every opportunity? For another, why talk with Tea Partiers when I know all about them alreadyâ€”or so the stereotype has deluded me into believing?
Polls like these make me stand up and take notice. Suddenly I realize that thereâ€™s more to these people than my stereotypes indicate. That stokes my curiosity, which in turn drives me to seek dialogue with members of the group.
Just like that, weâ€™re reaching across the divide.
Too optimistic? I might agree with you if it werenâ€™t actually happening. Recently the Transpartisan Alliance brought together a Tea Party leader with, of all people, a senior representative of MoveOn.org, a liberal activist group if there ever was one. Remarkably, both parties expressed an honest desire to talkâ€”and keep talking. Check out the link to the video on the homepage.*
Itâ€™s not what youâ€™d expect from either group, based on the stereotypes. And thatâ€™s exactly the problem with stereotypes: they prevent us from starting the dialogue that could move us toward deeper understandingâ€”and, ultimately, the healing of our bitter divides. Letâ€™s let go of them and approach each person for what she is: unique.
*The Transpartisan site may be down right now; I havenâ€™t been able to connect to it for a couple of days. If you canâ€™t either, keep trying; the video is worth the effort.