The story brings in several activists who receive benefits like Medicare and Social Security, who explain that they paid into those programs, “so they are getting what they deserve.” And it helps show just where—and how—they draw that tricky line.

“All I know is government was put here for certain reasons,” Ms. Reimer said. “They were not put here to run banks, insurance companies, and health care and automobile companies. They were put here to keep us safe.”

She has no patience for the Obama administration’s bailouts and its actions on health care. “I just don’t trust this government,” Ms. Reimer said.

Another unemployed activist blames the government’s support for free trade for the loss of his auto-parts sales job.

He and others do not see any contradictions in their arguments for smaller government even as they argue that it should do more to prevent job loss or cuts to Medicare. After a year of angry debate, emotion outweighs fact.

“If you don’t trust the mindset or the value system of the people running the system, you can’t even look at the facts anymore,” Mr. Grimes said.

The tea party movement is going to be with us for a while. The MSM seems to be wrapping its mind around that idea.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at