Democratic Left

What the Left Can Learn from the Tea Party

Joe Biden has been elected the 46th President of the United States of America but not without any costs. Biden’s electoral theory as many warned was not watertight and while he was able to notch a convincing victory nationwide, Democrats down ballot were not so lucky. The majority in the US House of Representatives has been greatly diminished after leadership all but guaranteed an expanded majority. The balance of power in the US Senate will now be decided by a double-barreled runoff election in Georgia, a state trending purple which Biden won but only within a recount margin. The news was worse in non-federal elections where candidates for statewide office and state legislatures were defeated handily. This is all to say that this election simultaneously served as a rejection of Donald Trump and the Democratic establishment.

Much ink has been spilled about what went wrong for Democrats including a patronizingly racist campaign to Latinos that assumed monolithic political attitudes, tens of millions wasted on consultants like the Lincoln Project who failed to materialize GOP support for Democrats (Trump won a higher share of the GOP vote than 4 years ago), the disappearance of in-person direct voter contact, and of course another campaign about Donald Trump’s vulgarities as opposed to uplifting policy. What has not been discussed is what opportunities lay ahead for the Democrats, especially those on the populist left if they are willing to do the work.

The reduced House majority came exclusively at the expense of centrist Democrats, progressives were consistently able to win re-election. Rep. Katie Porter whose district is +3% GOP leaning, won re-election after endorsing Medicare-for-All. So did Reps Josh Harder, Ann Kirkpatrick, Matt Cartwright, Mike Levin, Peter DeFazio, Jared Golden (endorses in 2018), and Susan Wild who represent districts that are more GOP leaning than the nation as a whole. Meanwhile in less GOP leaning and even Democratic leaning districts, like FL-29, FL-27, IA-01, and NY-11 Democrats lost. The center has attempted to blame activist rhetoric about “Defund the Police”, even though nearly 80% of Americans understood the actual meaning of “Defund the Police”. Whatever the reason for this disparity, we know progressives in swing districts won re-election more often than not.

The Left has found themselves in a position not too dissimilar to that of the Tea Party in 2012. Their candidate of choice had twice been denied the Presidency in favor of more establishment candidates. Huckabee in 2008 and Santorum in 2012 for the Tea Party, Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020 for the Left. It was clear that their policy positions were the majority view of base voters even as their candidates of choice failed to capture support. They were ridiculed and written off by party elites, the mass media, and academics who claim to have turned politics into a science. However, what the Tea Party had then is what the Left has now, enough members to block legislation, a mastery of social media where most Americans get their news, and a dedicated base of reliable donors and voters.

The House majority is narrow, so narrow that the newly expanded squad (welcome Reps. Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, Marie Newman, and Ritchie Torres) can torpedo legislation that is insufficiently progressive. John Boehner too faced this problem with the Freedom Caucus (a spiritual successor to the Tea Party caucus) and eventually became so ineffective at holding his coalition together that he resigned. The defeat of House majority leader Eric Cantor by Tea Party professor Dave Brat in 2014 too was then appropriately seen as the beginning of a new era in GOP party politics. The same should be recognized by the defeat of Joe Crowley by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018. The Left will and should challenge the party consensus, it is the only way to maintain relevancy and voters deserve a choice as opposed to an echo.

The reason the Tea Party was and continues to be so successful in its takeover of the Republican Party is simple. We can look at white cultural resentment or economic anxiety and that has its place, but what separates the Tea Party from the establishment in either party is that they consistently materially reward their voters with wins on issues they care about and they are unapologetic in the fights on these issues. The Tea Party voters wanted a hardline immigration policy, deregulated gun laws, restrictions on abortion, tax cuts, and for their politicians to actively fight the culture war. With every election they achieved more of those goals by replacing the old guard in primaries and abandoning old party affiliations and after 6 years, the Tea Party elected the obvious heir to their movement in Donald Trump and the takeover was completed. The Left with its ability to stall the Congress and extract concessions should focus on materially rewarding it’s voters too because while making peace with the establishment might make the Left more popular in Washington, the real battle is in every city and suburb outside of the beltway where the base desires more.

Some argue this comparison of the tea party and the Left is not perfect, first because they say the tea party was devoid of true ideology and was simply a bad faith movement inspired by racial resentment towards the first black president. However, the Tea party was meaningfully different from the establishment Republican party, and those differences extended beyond race and materialized in policy from trade to education to infrastructure. Another argument against this parallel is the Tea party came of age as an opposition party, and the left is about to find themselves with a Democrat president. I challenge that with a simple question, was Mitt Romney of the Tea Party? I should say no he was not, and had he been elected those on the right still would’ve seen themselves in opposition as they were opposed to his candidacy for the nomination and ambivalent about him as a general election candidate. This is also true of the Left which makes no secret of their distaste for Joe Biden who many see as a marginally less worse alternative to Donald Trump in terms of temperament and policy. The Left may not be the opposition party for the mainstream Democrats, but they are a opposition party and that has become clear in the post-election rhetoric from party elites. Finally, some will say “oh but what of the moderates and the middle class?”. I say that these people are the rearguard of political movements and historically have been very mailable in their beliefs and have already begun to conform to new party dynamics as they are not organized or aggrieved enough to challenge the Left or the Right.

The Tea Party very quickly gained an appreciation for the power of grassroots organization and how that can translate into electoral success. The Tea Party also was patient and persistent, withstanding hard loses but staying uncompromising in their policy goals essentially forcing the rest of the party to move towards them or continue to lose influence. We can see this most clearly in the 2012 US Senate race in Missouri compared to the 2018 race. Todd Akin failed where Josh Hawley succeeded, and it wasn’t because those candidates had any major ideological differences or radically different views on gender. Josh Hawley won because the grassroots infiltrated the party and voters had a sense of ownership and buy-in and therefore were self-motivated enough to ignore the obvious shortcomings of their new candidate. The Tea Party’s greatest achievement was convincing its voters that the old neoconservatives and country club moderates were not just in disagreement but an active roadblock that needed to be disempowered. That is the task ahead of The Left, showing its voters that their interests are not the interests of Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer and that those leaders cannot be pushed. It’s going to require a hard-nosed approach and seemingly being everywhere in terms of organizing but it can be done. Democrats won 80 seats in 2018 categorized as “Urban” or “Urban-Suburban”. The Tea Party saw the immediate path of least resistance through rural districts, the Left must recognize their opportunity in cities using Rep. Cori Bush as a model.

The Left can learn from these successes, but it should also learn from the consequences. Yes, the conservative movement is at its most successful, dominating rural states and creating a multiracial coalition of politicians and voters. We are living through a political realignment that will last for a generation if not longer. However, it has also activated the worst of our country and elevated a lunatic demagogue who has irreparably damaged our country. Militant vigilantes march through American cities and gun down protesters while law enforcement passively looks on. True believers are present at every level of government but their commitment to democracy and equal justice is sometimes little to nonexistent. A critical mass of people has become unreachable, so detached from reality that they live and breathe conspiracy. Meanwhile a media ecosphere has developed where propaganda is reported as fact and dissenters are labeled traitors. In this age of ideology defined by twin crises of income inequality and coronavirus, Americans will become more desperate in their genuine desire for relief. The Left must be careful to not let themselves be totally consumed by these illiberal elements who always appear in populist movements. This will be difficult as grift can often be subversive and some popular figures can be credibly accused of being pretenders. There’s also the matter of moral relativism, we’ve seen a leftist state house candidate in Kansas be elected despite admitting to revenge porn. Values matter if we say they do, and there will be something permanently lost if we decide that they don’t.

I don’t know if the Left can succeed in this country and I don’t know if the same fervor that carried the Tea Party can be recreated. What I do know is neoliberalism is one the way out and if the Democrats cannot reorient themselves and do it soon, we will be left behind as we’re lapped by a charismatic but destructive force that will remake America in its image. Those are the stakes of this decade, and god willing the Left will rise to the occasion.