Forget Building Our Own Tea Party. The Left Can Win So Much More.

We should set our sights beyond just primary challenges and reshaping the Democratic Party; this is an opportunity to build a movement that can challenge capital and corporate power.

Jacob Swenson-Lengyel March 10, 2017

The Tea Party only ever represented a tiny faction of Americans. We, on the other hand, are the clear majority. (Photo by Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images)

On Feb­ru­ary 19, 2009, just 30 days after Pres­i­dent Oba­ma was sworn in, Rick Santelli’s rant on the floor of the Chica­go Mer­can­tile Exchange launched the Tea Par­ty. The con­ser­v­a­tive estab­lish­ment worked togeth­er with the grass­roots to fan the flames of oppo­si­tion. The result­ing tidal wave swept Repub­li­cans to pow­er at the nation­al and state lev­el in 2010 — and set the stage for Trump’s vic­to­ry in 2016.

This isn’t just about electoral politics, it’s about shifting political and economic power across the board.

Since at least 2012, I’ve worked in and with orga­ni­za­tions that saw the Tea Par­ty as a mod­el for the Left. While we abhorred their pol­i­tics, we admired their tac­tics and cov­et­ed their suc­cess. The Tea Par­ty pio­neered a strat­e­gy that enabled grass­roots activists and can­di­dates to work inside and out­side of the Repub­li­can Par­ty to advance a prin­ci­pled” con­ser­v­a­tive agen­da. And they won — big time.

In the wake of Trump’s elec­tion, we’re see­ing a tsuna­mi of pro­gres­sive activism. The con­fronta­tions with law­mak­ers around the coun­try dur­ing the Feb­ru­ary Con­gres­sion­al recess were near­ly mir­ror images of the town halls the Tea Par­ty crashed as Con­gress first debat­ed Oba­macare. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, com­men­ta­tors and pun­dits have quick­ly drawn par­al­lels between what hap­pened in 2009 and what’s hap­pen­ing today.

But the com­men­ta­tors are wrong — and if the Left con­tin­ues to take the Tea Par­ty as our mod­el, we might lose out on our biggest oppor­tu­ni­ty to make large-scale pro­gres­sive polit­i­cal change in decades.

We are the clear majority

As Trump and the Repub­li­cans have begun — rather clum­si­ly — to manip­u­late the levers of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, we are under attack from all sides. Repub­li­cans have moved with breath­tak­ing speed to roll back progress on immi­gra­tion and civ­il rights, on health care and the envi­ron­ment, and on reg­u­lat­ing Wall Street and the cor­po­rate elite. More fright­en­ing still, we have seen the Trump admin­is­tra­tion begin toy­ing with author­i­tar­i­an tac­tics and threat­en­ing to undo the post-World War II glob­al order. Prac­ti­cal­ly overnight, it feels like every­thing has changed.

Giv­en this onslaught, it’s easy to for­get that rough­ly three in four Amer­i­cans didn’t vote for Don­ald Trump in Novem­ber. If our elec­toral sys­tem wasn’t rigged against democ­ra­cy, Trump wouldn’t even be pres­i­dent. But now that he’s assumed office, Trump is the least pop­u­lar pres­i­dent in mod­ern Amer­i­can his­to­ry. So while Trump and the Repub­li­cans con­trol the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, we must remind our­selves that the vast major­i­ty of the Amer­i­can peo­ple are on our side.

In fact, that is the real sto­ry of the last six weeks. While the media has been glued to Trump’s every tweet, mil­lions of Amer­i­cans have tak­en to the streets to protest his agen­da. More than 3.7 mil­lion peo­ple—one out of every 100 Amer­i­cans — flood­ed into the streets to par­tic­i­pate in the Women’s March. With­in 48 hours of Trump’s ini­tial Mus­lim ban, thou­sands gath­ered at air­ports around the coun­try demand­ing that immi­grants and refugees be released from detain­ment. Dur­ing the Feb­ru­ary recess, People’s Action, MoveOn and the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­ty orga­nized more than 600 town hall events. While it’s dif­fi­cult to pre­dict how long this lev­el of activ­i­ty can be sus­tained, we have already seen resis­tance to the new admin­is­tra­tion that is unprece­dent­ed in recent history.

This is pre­cise­ly where com­par­isons to the Tea Par­ty start to break down. Accord­ing to com­men­ta­tors and many in the media, what we’re see­ing now is mere­ly his­to­ry repeat­ing itself. Repub­li­cans have con­trol of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, just as Democ­rats did in 2009, and now it’s lib­er­als and the Left in the streets instead of old white peo­ple dressed in colo­nial garb.

But the Tea Par­ty only ever rep­re­sent­ed a tiny fac­tion of Amer­i­cans. We, on the oth­er hand, are the clear majority.

Polit­i­cal sci­en­tists The­da Skoc­pal and Vanes­sa Williamson esti­mate in their book The Tea Par­ty and the Remak­ing of Amer­i­can Con­ser­vatism that at its height only about 200,000 Amer­i­cans were active in the Tea Par­ty at the local lev­el. It’s too ear­ly to say exact­ly how many Amer­i­cans are engaged in the cur­rent protest move­ment, but already there are signs that we’re orga­niz­ing at a scale that dwarfs the Tea Party.

For exam­ple, the Tea Par­ty first debuted on the nation­al stage when they held rough­ly 750 Tax Day events around the coun­try. But only 250,000 Amer­i­cans attend­ed those events. In oth­er words, the Tea Party’s Tax Day protests were 15 times small­er than the Women’s March. Of course, par­tic­i­pa­tion at a sin­gle event does not nec­es­sar­i­ly fore­tell pro­longed par­tic­i­pa­tion in a social move­ment. But the fact that a small group of for­mer Hill staffers and pro­gres­sive orga­niz­ers could help launch more than 4,500 local groups in less than four weeks sug­gests a mas­sive groundswell of peo­ple inter­est­ed in sus­tained polit­i­cal participation.

The scale of active engage­ment is mir­rored by pub­lic sup­port. Polling con­duct­ed by the Wash­ing­ton Post in April 2010 found that rough­ly 27% of Amer­i­cans sup­port­ed the Tea Par­ty. By con­trast, a full 60% sup­port­ed the Women’s March.

At the pol­i­cy lev­el, the dif­fer­ence is even stark­er. When the Tea Par­ty held their Tax Day protests, polling showed that 65% of Amer­i­cans actu­al­ly backed Obama’s over­all eco­nom­ic plans and 62% approved of how he was han­dling tax­es. Their col­or­ful protests may have gen­er­at­ed a media fren­zy, but the poli­cies they were intend­ed to bol­ster did not have pop­u­lar support.

Those who have par­tic­i­pat­ed in recent march­es, ral­lies and actions are protest­ing a wide array of Repub­li­can poli­cies. But if we take just two core poli­cies pushed by Trump and the GOP, we can see that the resis­tance to those poli­cies — and sup­port for pro­gres­sive alter­na­tives — is broad.

This week, Repub­li­cans intro­duced their bill to repeal and replace Oba­macare, despite the fact that the law is sup­port­ed by a major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans. The Repub­li­can repeal bill also pro­pos­es deep cuts to Med­ic­aid, some­thing that has his­tor­i­cal­ly been opposed by 84% of Amer­i­cans. And there’s evi­dence to sug­gest that pub­lic sup­port for a Medicare-for-all sys­tem is even greater than sup­port for Obamacare. 

Tax cuts for cor­po­ra­tions and the wealthy are also a cen­ter­piece of the Repub­li­can agen­da. Yet, a series of post-elec­tion polls com­piled by Amer­i­cans for Tax Fair­ness show that Amer­i­cans oppose cut­ting tax­es for big cor­po­ra­tions and the rich by rough­ly a two-to-one mar­gin. Gallup polls con­sis­tent­ly show that sim­i­lar mar­gins believe cor­po­ra­tions and the wealthy already pay too lit­tle in tax­es.

Despite wide­spread sup­port on issues like health­care and tax­a­tion, the anti-Trump resis­tance is clear­ly an ide­o­log­i­cal­ly het­ero­ge­neous bunch, encom­pass­ing left­ists, cen­trist Democ­rats, inde­pen­dents and per­haps even some mod­er­ate Republicans.

That means our task is to orga­nize. Repub­li­cans have used vot­er sup­pres­sion, redis­trict­ing and oth­er unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic aspects of gov­ern­ment — such as the Elec­toral Col­lege and the Sen­ate — to take pow­er, despite the fact that many of their poli­cies are extreme­ly unpop­u­lar with large seg­ments of the pub­lic. They have also used the media, think tanks and the acad­e­my to man­u­fac­ture pub­lic con­sent to poli­cies that hurt many of the same peo­ple who sup­port them.

Our goal must be to bring togeth­er dif­fer­ent con­stituen­cies with­in the resis­tance move­ment, those moti­vat­ed by diverse strug­gles, to sup­port a bold plat­form for social change that will make life bet­ter for the work­ing class as a whole.

Reshap­ing the parties

The Tea Par­ty was a minor­i­ty fac­tion with­in the Repub­li­can Par­ty fund­ed by the wealthy elite. Our aim shouldn’t be the cre­ation of a fac­tion with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. It should be to forge a new Amer­i­can majority.

Neolib­er­al­ism has been in cri­sis for at least a decade, and the cri­sis of legit­i­ma­cy that elites — includ­ing politi­cians from both par­ties — face today is far more acute than it was in 2009. As a result, both par­ties face deep inter­nal rifts. We should not sim­ply aim to pull the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty to the left. We should work to redraw the lines of the entire polit­i­cal map so that we find our­selves at the center.

This doesn’t mean aban­don­ing our prin­ci­pled pol­i­tics or the hard­scrab­ble tac­tics pio­neered by the Tea Par­ty. We can and should mount pri­ma­ry chal­lenges to cor­po­rate Democ­rats and col­lab­o­ra­tors, includ­ing mem­bers of the cur­rent Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­er­ship. Efforts like WeWil​l​Re​placeY​ou​.org, a new Polit­i­cal Action Com­mit­tee cre­at­ed by #Allo­fUs, are an impor­tant addi­tion to work that has been done by groups like People’s Action and the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Party.

Nev­er­the­less, all of these efforts should be seen as tac­tics inside of a broad­er strat­e­gy to redraw the polit­i­cal map. The aim should be threefold.

First, we should aim to take over the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty whole­sale and make it into a vehi­cle for the work­ing class. In addi­tion to elect­ing real pro­gres­sives to office, this means build­ing a great­ly expand­ed coali­tion of active vot­ers and a gen­uine­ly pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy platform.

Sec­ond, we should exploit Trump’s incom­pe­tence and the fac­tions with­in the Repub­li­can Par­ty to dec­i­mate it for decades to come. Where pos­si­ble and with­out com­pro­mis­ing pro­gres­sive prin­ci­ples, we should aim to peel off sec­tions of the Repub­li­can coali­tion to join our side.

Final­ly, we should work for struc­tur­al reforms that make both the par­ty struc­ture and the elec­toral sys­tem itself more demo­c­ra­t­ic. That means every­thing from giv­ing work­ing peo­ple real deci­sion-mak­ing pow­er over the direc­tion of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty to mak­ing it more fea­si­ble for third par­ties to run and win gov­ern­ing pow­er to rewrit­ing the rules to elim­i­nate the Elec­toral Col­lege and oth­er unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic ele­ments of our polit­i­cal system.

Win­ning more than elections

This isn’t just about elec­toral pol­i­tics, it’s about shift­ing polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic pow­er across the board. While the Tea Par­ty pro­pelled elec­toral vic­to­ries, it did not gen­er­ate sus­tained and polit­i­cal­ly inde­pen­dent social move­ments. Since the Tea Par­ty was fund­ed by the wealthy elite, it didn’t put sig­nif­i­cant pres­sure on Wall Street and the rul­ing class, despite being fueled in part by anti-Wall Street sentiment.

While Trump and the Repub­li­cans con­trol the White House, Con­gress and 25 state gov­ern­ments, our goal can’t just be to reclaim those seats and offices. Even in places around the globe where Left-lean­ing polit­i­cal par­ties have won sig­nif­i­cant gov­ern­ing pow­er, such as Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, they have been large­ly unable to achieve their desired reforms in part because of the vast eco­nom­ic pow­er that weighs against them.

We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that politi­cians face struc­tur­al lim­its on their pow­er. Even pro­gres­sive gov­ern­ments need out­side help. We must build social move­ments strong enough to win gov­ern­ing pow­er and chal­lenge the dom­i­nance of cap­i­tal, mar­kets and the cor­po­rate elite.

Togeth­er, we can forge a new Amer­i­can major­i­ty. It may become pos­si­ble to achieve pro­gres­sive change far greater than we would ever have imag­ined just a few years ago. But doing so will require those of us on the Left to stop con­fin­ing our­selves to the mar­gins so that we can rede­fine the center. 

Jacob Swen­son-Lengyel is an orga­niz­er and writer who lives in Chica­go. He com­plet­ed an A.M. in phi­los­o­phy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go before becom­ing involved in polit­i­cal work full time. Read more of his writ­ing at https://​jacob​swen​son​.me, fol­low him on twit­ter @_JacobSL, or check out his Insta­gram @SignsOfResistance2017
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH