WASHINGTON -- The tea party is nothing new, it represents a relatively small minority of Americans on the right end of politics, and it will not determine the outcome of the 2010 elections.
In fact, both parties stand to lose if they accept the laughable notion that this media-created protest movement is the voice of true populism. Democrats will spend their time chasing votes they will never win. Republicans will turn their party into an angry and narrow redoubt with no hope of building a durable majority.
The news media's incessant focus on the tea party is creating a badly distorted picture of what most Americans think and warping our policy debates. The New York Times and CBS News thus performed a public service last week by conducting a careful study of just who is in the tea party movement.
Their findings suggest that the tea party is essentially the reappearance of an old anti-government far right that has always been with us and accounts for about one-fifth of the country. The Times reported that tea party supporters "tend to be Republican, white, male, married and older than 45." This is the populism of the privileged.
Tea party backers are far more likely than others to describe their views as "very conservative," and are decidedly more inclined than the rest of us to believe that too much is made of the problems facing black people.
This last finding points to a disconcerting fact that white Americans are reluctant to discuss: Part of the anger at President Obama is driven by the color of his skin.
Saying this invites immediate denunciations from defenders of those who bring guns to rallies, threaten violence to "take our country back" and mouth old slogans about states' rights and the Confederacy. So let's be clear: Opposition to the president is driven by many factors that have nothing to do with race. But race is definitely part of what's going on.
Here is the poll question in its entirety: "In recent years, do you think too much has been made of the problems facing black people, too little has been made, or is it about right?"
Twenty-eight percent of all Americans -- and just 19 percent of those who are not tea party loyalists -- answered "too much." But among tea party supporters, the figure is 52 percent. Tea partiers are almost three times as likely as the rest of us to say that too much attention is being paid to the problems of blacks.
Among all Americans, 11 percent say that the Obama administration's policies favor blacks over whites; 25 percent of tea party sympathizers say this. Again, more is going on here than race, but race is in the picture.
Tea party enthusiasts also consistently side with the better-off against the poor, putting them at odds with most Americans. The poll found that while only 38 percent of all Americans said that "providing government benefits to poor people encourages them to remain poor," 73 percent of tea party partisans believed this. Among all Americans, 50 percent agreed that "the federal government should spend money to create jobs, even if it means increasing the budget deficit." Only 17 percent of tea party supporters took this view.
As for raising taxes on households making more than $250,000 a year to provide health care for the uninsured, 54 percent of Americans favored doing so, as against only 17 percent of tea party backers.
And this must be the first "populist" movement ever driven by a television network: 63 percent of the tea party folks say they most watch Fox News "for information about politics and current events," compared with 23 percent of the country as a whole.
The right-wing fifth of the American population deserves news coverage like everyone else, and Fox is perfectly free to pander to its own viewers. What makes no sense is allowing a sliver of opinion out of touch with, yes, the "real" America to dominate the media and distort our political discourse.
Democrats face problems not from right-wingers who have never voted for them, but from a lack of energy among their own supporters and from dispirited independents and moderates who look to government for competence in solving problems and have little confidence in its ability to deliver.
A just-released Pew Research Center study found widespread mistrust of government, but also of banks, financial institutions and large corporations. Yes, there is authentic populist anger out there. But you won't find much of it at the tea parties.
E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.(c) 2010, Washington Post Writers Group