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Democrats embracing Tea Party tactics? That won’t work without a new ideology

To protect liberal gains like Obamacare, the Democrats need a more aggressive game. But that is not enough – they need to change their thinking, too

Jamie Peck: The Guardian-January 5, 2017


While Republican lawmakers were colluding with the vice-president elect, Mike Pence, about how best to repeal – and probably not replace – the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on Wednesday, Barack Obama held a meeting of his own. Unlike many previous meetings of his, Republicans were not invited. He did not “reach across the aisle”.

Instead, the outgoing president laid out a strategy to oppose Republican efforts to repeal his signature healthcare legislation, a move that could kick up to 30 million Americans off health insurance. That strategy involves pushing the phrase “Make America Sick Again”, refusing to “rescue” Republicans by helping them pass bound-to-be-Randian replacement measures and referring to the resulting disaster as “Trumpcare”, as in: “I would have gotten my leg set by a doctor, but thanks to Trumpcare, I’m using Scotch tape.” The political fallout, he said, must solely hurt the Republicans. (Sounds like someone is finally jumping on the Bernie “time to admit you lied” Sanders train.)

Contrast this with remarks made back in April in which Obama warned his party against becoming too much like the Tea Party. Speaking to a group of law students in Chicago, he worried that Democrats would “stake out positions so extreme, they alienate the broad public”. He’s hardly become Eugene Debs, but it seems he’s come around to a more confrontational strategy. (Funny how your priorities change when you go from quelling a left-insurrection to trying to quell a right one.)

In instructing his party to openly vie for power and engage in the muck of actual politics rather than genteel tinkering, the president became the latest and most high-profile advocate of an idea that’s finally picking up steam in mainstream Democratic circles: copying the Tea Party, a faction which, for better or for worse, was and remains devastatingly effective at carrying out its program.

Beginning immediately after Obama’s 2008 election, a vocal, ideologically driven minority of “activists” began storming town hall meetings, pressuring Republican representatives to resist Obama no matter what he tried to do and purging their party of anyone deemed insufficiently reactionary. Eight years later, they enjoy a unified rightwing government and the undisputed dominance of the Republican party. Gone are the days when congressional Republicans would let themselves be cucked by compromise. It’s high time the Democrats sunk to their level.

A 23-page Google document titled Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda has been spreading around Washington faster than John Podesta’s risotto recipe. Written by a group of Congressional staffers who witnessed the rise of the Tea Party first-hand, it lays out a number of practical ways progressive activists and lawmakers can defend the incremental gains of the Obama era using Tea Party tactics, minus the physical intimidation and rabid racism.

Operating on a local level, acting defensively and waging constituent phone call campaigns are all ideas that can easily be appropriated. Considering the razor-thin margins by which Republicans won in many states, it should not be hard to frighten Republican representatives with the prospect of getting voted out.

Activists can also empower (or pressure, as the case may be) Democratic lawmakers to stand up for progressive principles, and this means tugging the political spectrum back to the left. Republicans have long known it’s foolish to start negotiations in the middle. They stake out extreme positions – a six-week abortion ban, a complete gutting of the Office of Congressional Ethics – so they can bargain down to what they actually want – a 20-week abortion ban, a “bipartisan” gutting of the OCE.

In contrast, Democrats said they were open to replacing Obamacare before Congress was even in session, voted to authorize the Iraq War and competed throughout the 1990s to show they could put black people in prison and dismantle the welfare state with the best of them. They let the ACA’s public option fall to the threat of a filibuster from Joe Lieberman, which they could have easily withstood if they had wanted to. Even now, they deride the Tea Party’s tactics as childish and crass, when the truly crass thing is that 45 million people are living in poverty in the richest country in the world.

Of course, what the Google doc and the president fail to mention is that this only works if the Democrats are progressive in the first place; there can be no left-Tea Party without an organizing ideology. Which brings me to another Tea Party tactic: the purge.

While some Democrats ( Elizabeth Warren and the logical left-Tea Party choice for DNC chair, Keith Ellison) are already reasonably progressive and more can potentially be dragged left by political expediency, many are simply too committed to neoliberal ideology and/or beholden to monied interests to be rehabilitated. Which means some pink-slipping and primary-challenging is in order.

Time travellers from the New Deal era would be confused to learn the leftmost major party’s 2016 nominee for president ran her primary campaign against the $15-an-hour minimum wage, tuition-free college and single-payer healthcare, deriding these commonsense reforms as pie-in-the-sky fantasies on the level of Trump’s wall, and only begrudgingly adopting certain elements of them once it became clear the left wing of her party might revolt.

In the general election, Trump exploited establishment Democrats’ longstanding support of labor-opposed trade deals to stake out a leftward position that threw the Clinton campaign for a loop. Despite the benefit of hindsight, many in the party’s leadership still refuse to recognize the role these failures played in their 2016 defeat.

For all the New Democrats’ talk of pragmatism over ideology, it seems the truly practical thing would be to grow some sort of ideological backbone. Those who refuse to do so must be left in the woods.

The good news is that once this happens, progressive activists and lawmakers will be able to use Tea Party’s tactics better than the Tea Party itself, because the left has actual grassroots movements.

Black Lives Matter, Fight For $15 and Bernie Sanders’ remarkable campaign are all examples of regular people coming together to effect change that put the Tea Party’s “grassroots” theatrics to shame.

If these movements have already achieved some modest victories on their own, imagine what they’ll be able to do with the legislative and monetary powers of a newly invigorated Democratic party at their disposal. What the party may lose in large donations, it will gain in small ones, votes and the ability to fix this mess.

And that’s worth spilling some tea along the way.

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