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IRS agents aren’t the only people who’ve been examining the tea party.

Christopher Parker, a professor of political science at the University of Washington, has been studying the tea party since 2009.

He set out in 2010 to use an array of social-science tools to figure out who tea-party supporters are and why they take the positions they do.

Most people already have an opinion about that, but what he found is that supporters and critics of the tea party get it only partly right and that the movement isn’t really new, just the latest version of a recurring American political phenomenon.

The result of his work is “Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America,”
a book just published by Princeton Press.

Reactionary is the key word. Most supporters of the movement aren’t garden-variety conservatives. They’ve used their muscle to have their way with the main home of conservatives, the Republican Party, but their motivations, ideals and goals are different from those of mainstream conservatives.

The tea party is an heir of political movements such as the 1920s version of the Klan, which saw threats to “pure Americanism” in black people, Jews, and Catholics for a start, and in the 1960s, the John Birch Society, which saw the hand of communism everywhere it looked.

Parker is careful to say it is not identical to those groups, not race-based like the Klan for instance, but supporters of all three movements share a motivating engine, a belief that social changes are pushing them aside.

From time to time, he told me, when social conditions are right, reactionary movements rise up, such as the Know Nothing movement that swept across the country in the 1850s. Know Nothings saw Irish and German Catholic immigrants as a threat. They limited membership to white, Protestant males, and most were middle class.

Parker said the demographic makeup of large reactionary movements has been quite similar, educated, middle class, white, largely male. They aren’t losers, but people who feel they have something to lose and that some force or forces are trying to take their place in society.

He writes: “These are people who long for a bygone era in which American society, in some way or another, was better, and who refuse to accept the social and economic changes that have been essential to American progress.” Progress such as advances in the position of women and minorities.

Tea-party attitudes on immigration or racial profiling tend to be driven by fear of being overrun numerically and culturally, not necessarily racism, Parker writes.

And in surveys, most supporters don’t express animosity toward sexual minorities. Instead they have anxiety over a perception that gays and lesbians wield power over everyone else.

Parker’s work (fellow UW professor Matt Barreto contributed to the book) focused on supporters of the movement, not members or activists. Membership numbers are small. It is the supporters, whose numbers and high voting rates have wrested elections from mainstream Republicans and put tea-party candidates in their seats.

Throughout the book, Parker compares tea-party attitudes to those of mainstream conservatives and finds them different on a range of issues, even though tea-party supporters often say the movement is about old-fashioned conservative values.

Shortly after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in Tucson, Ariz., a lot was written about the incendiary political rhetoric that could incite someone to commit such an act.

Parker included a question in his 2011 multistate survey about freedom of speech for media pundits who express extreme views even when it might result in violence.

Conservatives traditionally are not big backers of freedom of speech. Only 27 percent of people who identified themselves as mainstream conservatives supported freedom of speech under the mentioned circumstances, versus 46 percent of tea-party conservatives.

On racial profiling, 28 percent of mainstream conservatives were supportive, versus 55 percent of tea-party conservatives.

In several questions about President Obama, mainstream conservatives, while they disagreed with his policies, rated his personal traits much higher than did tea-party conservatives. Also 71 percent of tea-party conservatives said Obama will destroy the country, versus 6 percent of mainstream conservatives.

Mainstream conservatives were more willing to spend on education for disadvantaged populations if that would help the country as a whole (47 percent), but only 26 percent of tea-party conservatives would.

Parker compared the mainstream conservative National Review Online (NRO), with tea-party official websites, looking at the percentage of mentions of various topics and at the language used.

The NRO spent about a third of its space on national security and foreign-policy issues and another third on big government or states’ rights issues. The tea-party sites spent only 5 percent of their content on national security and foreign policy, but a third on a category Parker called conspiracy/socialism/government bad.

Parker said he doesn’t see any way of easing tea-party supporters’ anxiety or reducing their anger, all of which is deeply rooted in the way they see the world, particularly their ideas about who is a real American (Protestant, white, middle class, heterosexual) and what values are true American values. They see no room for compromise.

Mainstream conservatives may resist change, he said, but they will compromise to preserve the community or the nation. Some prominent mainstream conservatives have been saying as much themselves.

Last weekend former Republican Sen. Bob Dole said neither he nor even Ronald Reagan would fit in today’s Republican Party, partly because they were willing to work with political opponents to do what was necessary for the nation.

He’s far from the only mainstream conservative saying enough is enough. Parker hopes the findings in his book will give them a little maneuvering room.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday.

Reach him at 206-464-3346 or