Vital Signs

George Wallace and the Tea Party

Many of those seeking to understand the Tea Party movement have tried to find historical parallels, and one that has been suggested is the George Wallace movement.  Both movements have comprised voters feeling that the America they grew up in is being taken from them, and their strength in the electorate is roughly comparable.  George Wallace drew 13 percent of the popular vote in 1968, after polling as high as 20 percent, and the comprehensive poll of the Tea Party movement published by the New York Times on April 14 found that 18 percent of voters consider themselves members of the Tea Party.

But there are significant differences as well.  Wallace’s greatest support came from lower-middle- and working-class whites, and Wallace famously sought to defend “this man in the textile mill, this man in the steel mill, this barber, this beautician, the policeman on the beat” against “pointy-headed intellectuals,” “bearded bureaucrats,” “anarchists,” and “lawbreakers.”  Thanks to decades of free trade, America now has far fewer workers in textile and steel mills (though the intellectuals and bureaucrats seem to be doing just fine), and the demographic profile of the Tea Party reflects this.  Indeed, as the New York Times headline trumpeted, “Poll Finds Tea Party Backers Wealthier and Better Educated,” with 70 percent of Tea Party supporters having...

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