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WSW: What Can be Learned From Listening to the Tea Party?

Rowman and Littlefield Publishing

Illinois Wesleyan University Sociology Professor Meghan Burke says she studies how people talk and think about race, so the Tea Party was something she couldn't ignore. 

Burke, a Battle Creek native and Pennfield High School graduate, is author of Race, Gender and Class in the Tea Party: What the Movement Reflects About Mainstream Ideologies. Burke told WMUK's Gordon Evans that she interviewed about 25 tea party leaders in Illinois. Burke says the organizers were very willing to talk to her. She says they wanted to be heard. 

Credit Courtesy of Meghan Burke
Meghan Burke

While Burke says that the tea party has been rightly criticized for some racially-charged posters at rallies and some of the language they have used, she says their racial attitudes are similar to those in the mainstream. Burke says it's hard to know how much race, specifically the election of Barack Obama, figures into the tea party's reaction to his policies. She says the economic crisis also played into the anger that has been expressed. 

Asked about the biggest surprise that came from the interviews, Burke says the role of women in tea party groups. She says many of them are the leaders of tea party chapters in Illinois. Burke says many women found their political voice and political confidence with tea party groups.  

"I wasn't sure I was going to agree with them about anything when we got started."

Burke also found that the tea party is closer to the political mainstream than "many people expect." She says her political beliefs don't line up with the tea party. But Burke says many of the people she spoke with expressed concerns about corruption, the middle class and the role of money in politics. "A lot of times people were saying things about really feeling like we've gotten away from a Democracy in this country that I found myself really agreeing with, and I wasn't sure I was going to agree with them about anything when we got started." 

Interview with Meghan Burke - web version

Even people who don't agree with the tea party's politics can learn from the group, according to Burke. She says members of the tea party have genuine concerns about the future that their children and grandchildren face. Burke says that should be appreciated, even if there is a political difference of opinion over the best way to solve them. She says that there's a lot to learn from folks who are willing to stand up and say, "something's wrong here." 

Gordon Evans became WMUK's Content Director in 2019 after more than 20 years as an anchor, host and reporter. A 1990 graduate of Michigan State, he began work at WMUK in 1996.
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