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Commentary: Does the left need a Tea Party?

The Republican Party looks like it’s in solid shape. They control Congress and the White House. And at the state level, Democrats have been decimated. The 2018 map heavily favors the GOP. Donald Trump has a good chance of appointing at least two conservative justices over the next four years.

Look a little deeper, however, and the picture gets a bit less rosy. The Republican coalition is unstable. Trump is unpopular, as is the Congressional leadership.

Moreover, it should be increasingly clear that the left is winning in the contest of ideas. In an effort to burnish his moderate creds, Bill Clinton famously said in the 1990s that the era of big government is over, but now it appears that the opposite is true.

Americans want more government, with more benefits, a trend that’s only likely to continue as more of them find themselves out of a job due to automation. Even the glitch-filled Obamacare, that piñata of the Tea Party, is proving to be much more resilient and popular than Republicans had hoped.

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Trump won in large part by tapping into this feeling, this sense that the economy is failing workers and therefore must be managed by an outsider who keeps their interests in mind. That is to say, he won in large part by jettisoning economic conservatism, with its fuddy-duddy faith in markets and the inevitable success that they said stems from hard work.

Twenty years after NAFTA and the break-neck globalization that followed, Americans have seen their wages stagnate and wealth become increasingly concentrated at the top. That wealth inequality is a major political problem, because after awhile people won’t stand for it. We’re an increasingly proletarian nation, and proletarian nations skew left.

Trump and his court ideologists, most notably Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, appear to intuit all this. That’s why Bannon seems so decidedly left-of-center on economics, what with his dreams of industrial renewal flowing from massive stimulus spending. In an interview with The Washington Post’s David Ignatius this week, Mike Flynn described Bannon as “more left than right,” which at this point should not come as a surprise.

This is the reason that, despite its shaky beginnings, Trump-style nationalist populism could be a success; they get, in some sense, which way the sand is moving beneath their feet. Popular left-wing economic ideas could be co-opted and repurposed by the administration.

This brings us to back to the real left, and how they can most effectively fight back. The most popular road map proposed so far seems to be one that involves digging in, never compromising, and obstructing everything. In particular, some attention is being paid to the creation of a left-wing Tea Party, one that could direct popular dissatisfaction toward targets convenient to progressives.

There are merits to this idea. In some ways the Tea Party was successful at helping right-wing candidates, particularly at the state level, and was useful in encouraging the Congressional obstructionism that hampered President Obama from the moment he entered office. Still, it’s a strategy that brings with it certain dangers.

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The Tea Party, for one thing, was never all that popular – according to Gallup, it maxed out at a 32 percent approval rating in 2010, a number that has dropped considerably in recent years. Part of that had to do with its tendency to promote candidates in primaries who were unable to win general elections; Missouri’s Todd Akin was one particularly disastrous example.

However, Democrats would likely benefit politically from moving further left, and in this regard a Tea Party-like project would likely be advantageous to them.  But the creation of some progressive Tea Party, particularly one run by Clintonite power brokers, could very well do the opposite, moving money and resources behind identity-politics-obsessed liberals unsuited to the new landscape. This would be the best case scenario for Bannon and company.

Who would run the various pressure groups to make up this new Tea Party is then the first thing that needs to be figured out before one could rise and grow. And the second thing, teid to the first, is how to resist the temptations of grifterism.

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The right-wing Tea Party of the Obama years fell victim to this early, and within a couple years was less of a serious political movement than a network of scams. Conservatives donated to fly-by-night PACs that promised reform and instead spent its money shaking down more and more people. Consultants got rich even as victories became more elusive, and the movement died.

If Trumpism is to be defeated, it will likely be because small groups of people take their mission very seriously. Protests have a purpose because they allow people to meet each other while still displaying popular displeasure. The same goes for phone calls to representatives, which already seem to have had an impact, and other tried-and-true tactics like writing campaigns.

And the best thing about actions like this is that they don’t need big PACs because their power stems from their spontaneity, particularly in this newfangled age of social media, where a viral tweet can bring people to the streets with ease and efficiency. We saw this with the protests in airports after Trump’s travel ban was announced, all organized without some lefty clone of the Tea Party Express.

The truth is, you don’t need to fork over cash to someone in D.C. or Brooklyn when a simple phone call to your senator has more impact. You don’t need to sign a petition written by one of David Brock’s underlings because it would be more effective if you just wrote one yourself.

Perhaps a left-wing Tea Party, in its puritanical zeal, will take its mission more seriously and abstain from playing pickpocket. Better to avoid the temptation entirely, however, and stick to more under-the-radar organizing that brings together the likeminded, stays clear of big, new, PACs, and keeps the movement decentralized.

Organizing, at least the kind that really matters, doesn’t require an infrastructure of well-paid organizers. In fact, if the previous Tea Party has shown us anything, they’ll only make it harder in the long run. 

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