In recent months – and particularly with respect to progressive disappointment with new Boston City Councillor Michelle Wu’s decision to vote for Councillor Bill Linehan as City Council President this Monday – there have been many assertions that the left is resorting to “Tea-Party tactics” or “Tea-Party purity.”
Comments like this:
Keep stamping your feet.
If you keep up this temper tantrum long enough, you just might get what you want. Works often enough when the Tea Party does it in Congress.
How is this any different than the Tea Party? The JP Progressives are demanding ideological uniformity in all things, at all times, in spite of the big picture advantages to be gained from Wu’s cooperation with other, less progressive councillors.
That mentality sucks in Washington and it sucks in Boston.
the treatment I’ve seen of Wu does strike me as a bit Tea Party-ish in the purity department.
The clear implication in most of these comments is that such things are undesirable. I’ve been wanting to unpack that a little bit, to explore (1) what is objectionable to people on the left side of the spectrum about the Tea Party; (2) what should and should not be characterized as “Tea-Party tactics.” Here goes…
Let me say first that I realize I’m hardly the first person, or even the first BMGer, to address these issues. Nine months ago jconway asked the question: “Does the Left Need its own Tea Party?” The 50 comments on that post revealed some thinking among regular commenters about what, exactly, we find problematic about the Tea Party movement.
The obvious first answer is its ideology. It’s hardly worth belaboring the point that Democrats, and particularly liberal Democrats, disagree strenuously with the Tea Party’s hard-right agenda. I don’t think that’s the reason most BMGers who criticize “Tea-Party tactics” do so, although I do think that our abhorrence of the Tea Party does spur a desire not be like them in any way, including tactics.
Petr, in the comments on jconway’s thread and elsewhere, has laid out a thoughtful, nuanced version of this line of thought (I hope Petr will correct me if I mischaracterize it in any way). Petr starts from the conviction that:
the Tea Party is racist and mean-spirited, at its very core. There is very little to it besides that…By and large people on the left and to the center are neither racist nor mean-spirited…
These traits are so inseparable from the Tea Party movement that asking if we need “a Tea Party of the left” cannot possibly be same thing as asking “how can we, on the left, be as effective as this certain bloc on the right?.” Any inability to conceive of a movement on the left except as in reaction to (or, worse, as a mirror image of) the Tea Party itself dooms us to failure.
On jconway’s thread, I made the case that such distinctions are semantic, but I do agree that semantics and framing are important. I’m more than willing to concede the point that “a Tea Party of the left” is an entirely inadequate shorthand for an effective movement that represents our values.
For many people here, however, I suspect the bigger problem with “Tea Party tactics” is that they’re ineffective as a means of reaching the Tea Party’s goals. Why would we want to emulate counterproductive tactics? And, yes, the Tea Party’s political failures are well-known. Candidates like Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, Richard Mourdock, and Todd Akin probably cost the Republicans winnable Senate seats…and perhaps control of the Senate. There’s no question the Tea Party folks value purity over things like electability, and the negative consequences that have flowed from that approach might strike some on the left as something to be avoided.
For the sake of discussion, I’d like to offer a contrary take. Sure, the Tea Party almost certainly cost the GOP some Senate seats. At the same time, they’ve managed to elect people like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Pat Toomey, and Ron Johnson to the Senate. Mike Lee knocked off an already-conservative Republican in Bob Bennett and held the seat easily. More importantly, the Tea Party was enormously successful in the 2010 House elections and state-level elections. They took the House for the Republicans and controlled the redistricting in enough states to make retaking it very challenging for Democrats this decade. They also elected a boatload of governors (although that particular boat may be sinking in 2014).
For the institutional Republican Party, losing out on controlling the Senate is an unfortunate development. But for the movement, in the context of a GOP House with a strong Tea Party contingent and Barack Obama in the White House, failing to control the Senate might a price worth paying temporarily. Even without a Republican Senate majority, the House can be effective, through shameless obstructionism, at blocking any kind of progressive legislation. Sure, a GOP House and Senate might pass more conservative bills than the current Congress does, but Obama would veto many of them anyway.
So you enforce your purity and force Republicans hoping to be re-nominated to tack right. Maybe you lose some races, but you’ve gotta break some eggs to make an omelette. In the meantime, the center of gravity in the Republican Party has moved far to the right. All of a sudden Johnny Isakson seems like a reasonable guy. And the Overton Window has shifted far to the right as well. Most proposals that won’t get past the GOP House are dismissed as unrealistic. With an eye on the future, you hope to find a way to nominate your Tea Party people and still win. Maybe you memorize some softer talking points about the horror of rape. Maybe you suppress the opposition vote. Maybe you do an even better job of scaring uninformed people into voting your way.
Some historical context: after the 1964 Presidential landslide, the Goldwater Republicans didn’t slink away. For the most part they doubled down, and they started to win. 1966 was a good year for the GOP, including Goldwater conservatives like Ronald Reagan, who was elected Governor of California. In 1968 the Republicans took the White House, albeit with Nixon, who wasn’t as far right as the Goldwater crowd wanted. But it was a start. Pretty soon they had Ronald Reagan in the White House and the Democratic Party moving itself to the right. Then, in 1994, they take Congress. In 2000 they put their guy close enough for the Supreme Court to hand him the Presidency. When he proves disastrous for the country and 2008 yields a resounding Democratic win, they don’t surrender. Not yet. They double down some more and pull the GOP even farther right.
Ineffective? Overall, I’d say not. After all, we’re still talking about how to match their results. And it’s mostly worked despite breathtaking GOP hypocrisy. “Deficit reduction,” a concept that Dick Cheney ridiculed when he was in charge, has been the order of the day in Washington since 2009. If ever there was a year when “deficit reduction” should have gotten no traction, 2009 would have been it. But for all five years of Barack Obama’s presidency, both parties have (after the initial stimulus bill was passed) accepted the austerity premise. Our politics and our economy have been constrained by that huge Tea Party victory.
Of course, they miscalculated in the October shutdown debacle. And took a big hit in the polls for about ten minutes, until website woes wiped the slate clean. When the smoke cleared, it was pretty much back to business as usual: the press was so busy throwing statesmanship laurels at Congress’s feet for reaching a budget deal in December that nobody cared what was in the budget deal: spending and revenue levels for 2014 and 2015 almost 90% of the way to Paul Ryan’s original proposal as compared to the CPC’s People’s Budget or the April 2013 Obama budget.
Not in the budget deal: silly things like veterans’ benefits and continued emergency unemployment benefits, much needed in a time of high long-term unemployment and continued weak consumer demand. John Boehner is, of course, open to discussing an extension. Once Democrats identify what they’d like to cut to offset the money. What, you wanted to keep all the just-agreed-upon spending? Shoulda gotten the UI in the original deal.
So I wouldn’t say Democrats should avoid emulating their tactics because they’ve been ineffective. On budget and economy issues (which to me are 90% of the ballgame), I’d say they’ve been pretty damn effective, even with the blown Senate races.
(An aside: With all their success, on top of the 30 years of conservative dominance before Obama, you’d think they’d be happy. And I suspect the people pulling the strings are fairly happy. The Tea Party politicians rail against each deal as a horrible betrayal of their principles, but I wonder how much of that is rooted in the knowledge – backed up by significant empirical evidence – that such theatrical braying is effective in pulling the discussion in the direction they want it to go.
For the Tea Party “base,” on the other hand, I suspect the unhappiness is real. Some of it can be chalked up to “I-want-it-all” types never being satisfied with even 98%. Most of it, though, has two causes. First, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” The working-class folks among them really don’t get that the movement they support so passionately is hurting people like them economically, and wonder why the movement’s “victories” never seem to get them any closer to prosperity. Of course, they assume they didn’t move the country far enough to the right and right-wing media exists to make sure their outrage is permanently ginned up. Second, the Tea Party’s success on budget issues does nothing to stem the social and demographic changes many of its supporters hate and fear. These folks are fighting a rearguard action and are doomed to dissatisfaction.)
So I don’t entirely buy the ineffectiveness theory. But I do think there are some aspects of Tea Party tactics we should not emulate on the left. Here’s a brief review of what – in my view – is acceptable political behavior and what is not:
Criticizing elected officials for their decisions or positions. Entirely fair game. Too often, liberals fall into the trap of being too reasonable. It’s not our job to argue the other side, nor to suppress our expression of what we think the policy should be because of considerations of “political reality.” If there’s one thing we can learn from the right, it’s that there’s value in making sure your real point of view is part of the conversation. Negotiating against yourself helps nobody but the opposition.
I am not saying it’s smart to fly off the handle too quickly. In this new year I’ve been trying to heed my own advice. When passions run high and keyboards and fora are readily available, knee-jerk reactions can be hard to avoid. But it’s worth taking a moment to reflect. Writing off consistent allies due to one vote you don’t like – a Tea Party specialty – is not the way to go. And ad hominem attacks, in particular, can be counterproductive: they often alienate both the politician in question and the audience.
Contacting elected officials and their constituents in an effort to move them on an issue. This is the very basis of participatory democracy, so the extent anyone criticized those who attempted to – for instance – sway Councillor Wu’s vote for Councillor Linehan, I disagree.
Primarying recalcitrant officials. If an official routinely governs to the right of the state or district, I’m all for it.
Here in Massachusetts we have an interesting situation. The Democratic Party, as an institution, wants to win as many elections as possible. But many of us have suggested that our Democratic Party is too “big-tent,” due largely to Republican dysfunction in the Commonwealth. As a result our legislative caucus is skewed right and we get less done. Might we not do better with smaller, but still sizeable, majorities and a caucus more representative of our party’s platform and activist base? If so, jamming a stick in the electoral wheels of some more conservative Democrats would not be a bad thing overall.
Nonetheless, proceed with caution. What chance of winning the primary challenge? What effect on the general? These should be considerations, though not perhaps controlling in all cases. Sometimes you have to just go for it instead of clinging to the status quo.
“Extreme purity” primarying: The type of Tea Party behavior I don’t condone is primarying someone whose record is generally solid for your side. For instance, I did not like the House bill on transportation financing last April. But it got a lot of votes from generally-reliable Democratic members whom I wouldn’t want to primary. Pick your spots. If someone’s got an 80% plus voting record on your issues, a primary over one vote – even a big one – might not be the way to go.
Obviously, that’s even more true when the bill in question (like the August 2011 deal to avoid default) is a huge win for your side.John Boehner said he got 98% of what he came for and he was right. How much better could the Tea Party have done than massive federal spending cuts with no new revenue at all? Yet 66 (mostly Tea Party) House Republicans voted “no,” and Tea Party groups were calling for primaries against the “traitor” Republicans who voted for the deal. That’s just silly.
Appeals to racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia: I agree with Petr that these generally are hallmarks of the right. To the extent they pop up, Democrats should not tolerate them in our party, and certainly a progressive movement shouldn’t have anything to do with them.
Hostage-taking: Where the Tea Party has been truly unforgiveable to me is their willingness to play fast and loose with the entire United States economy, or the fragile household budget of struggling American families to get their way. In my view for the Tea Party – and here I’m talking about the people pulling the strings, not the useful idiots waving flags at their rallies – the pain generated by economic hostage-taking is a feature, not a bug. They don’t really care if American households feel economic pain, not when they can exploit the pain to win more elections and their main goal is concentrating as much wealth and power as possible in themselves.
- In December 2010 Democrats were ready to extend the Bush tax cuts on taxable income below $250,000, but not on taxable income above that. Clean and simple. The GOP refused to go along, knowing Obama would cave rather than risk the harm to struggling households (and the potential political fallout) if the Bush tax cuts were allowed to expire in their entirety. They were right.
- In August 2011 they knew they could count on Democrats to accept massive spending cuts rather than risk default. They were right again.
- In December 2012, they knew they could win serious concessions on the expiring Bush tax cuts at the high end if they held the UI extension, and maintaining the rates for lower earners, hostage. Sure enough, without even giving up the sequester they won some major concessions on revenue and probably would have won more if Boehner hadn’t proven willing to pass a compromise with Democratic votes.
Yes, in October 2013 they overshot. They probably never expected Obama to call their bluff. But they’re still, today, willing to block the UI extension unless they get more concessions. The new rule seems to be: default or shutdown is a bridge too far, but garden-variety hostage-taking is just fine
Such hostage-taking has proven effective for the Tea Party most of the time. But it’s despicable. An effective movement to lead the Democratic Party and the nation to the left should not engage in hostage-taking – threats to cause real harm to the nation if it isn’t given concessions it couldn’t otherwise get in the political process. That type of governance is irresponsible and wrong.
But let’s be clear when we talk about “Tea-Party tactics” unbecoming our side – this is the objectionable stuff, not criticizing Michelle Wu on Twitter or trying to change her mind because you don’t agree with putting one of the council’s most conservative members in the President’s chair.
Just my two cents. Have at it.