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Democrats Need Something Better Than A Tea Party

Reprinted with permission from USA Today.

You can understand why some on the left are drooling for their own Tea Party movement.

Only eight years after Republicans suffered a nearly cataclysmic defeat, they are roaring back into “unified” power. It all started with a movement that seemed to appear out of nowhere to challenge GOP orthodoxy, only to be handily co-opted and weaponized to win both houses of Congress and control of more state legislatures than at any time since Republicans actually were the Party of Lincoln.

Now, thanks to the grabby hands of Donald Trump — who marched the GOP establishment through all the stages of mourning as he led a sort of one-man Tea Party movement of his own — Republicans will soon add to their trophy case the White House and possibly Supreme Court control for another generation, coasting on the winds of the best economy any new president has inherited since 1988.

Trump’s campaign is almost impossible to imagine without the equally unlikely candidacy of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement she once inspired by being a know-nothing, Obama/lamestream-media-bashing straight word-salad shooter.

Like Palin, Trump was supposed to be a Frankenstein’s monster lacquered with bronze toner who turns against its creator, punishing the party’s donor class for indulging the worst instincts of a Republican base driven into a frenzy by the “conservative entertainment complex,” as David Frum calls it.

Instead, conservative donors are now preparing to live out fantasies they’ve had since they were their mistresses’ ages.

Forget slicing taxes for the rich, their kids, their corporations and their kids’ corporations, along with uninsuring millions. Too easy. Soon they’ll be ready to gut Medicaid and possibly Medicare while deregulating and privatizing everything from the Department of Veterans Affairs to roads to schools. And Trump, like Mitt Romney before him, has adopted wholesale much of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s Ayn Rand-on-Red-Bull agenda.

Why wouldn’t the Democratic Party want all this — a chance to live out its wildest dreams, freed from the constraints of consequences, facts, promises, transparency, tax returns, news conferences or any experience in public service?

The past six out of seven presidential elections proved that there are more Democrats than Republicans, Liberals just happen to enjoy living around each other too much to maximize their electoral clout. As for what Democrats stand for, even as Arizona went for Trump by 3.5 percentage points in 2016, it passed a ballot referendum by nearly 18 points to raise the minimum wage.

Democrats obviously just need a presidential nominee named “Raise T. Minimumwage.”

America is a majority left-wing country that has been gerrymandered into a distorted reality, right? With sprawling protests already planned for Trump’s inauguration Jan. 20, it should be easy to spark a national uprising against the biggest popular-vote loser elected president in modern American history.

So why aren’t liberal donors trying to spark a Tea Party of the left?

They know as well as anyone that the “spontaneous” uprising of 2009 was fed or led by an extremely well-financed web of conservative networks. How else do you get a movement enraged by teacher’s salaries and government regulation during an apocalyptic financial crisis caused by bankers exploiting a lack of government regulation?

Conservative donors have spent tens of millions of dollars and decades building a movement that revolves around resentment of liberals and the government. The gains of tax breaks, deregulation and privatization are massive — so massive that the donor class is willing to suffer some demands from an activated grassroots, as long as those demands don’t get in the way of tax breaks, deregulation and privatization.

Big Democratic donors also tend to have their pet causes, such as guns and climate change. And in some cases, such as climate and immigration, a Demos study shows, these funders actually push the party to the left. But the story is different when it comes to “pocketbook” issues such as the budget and taxes.

Democrats in general were nearly six times as likely to support raising taxes to reduce the deficit as Democratic donors who gave $5,000 or more, the Demos research found. Organized labor, meanwhile, the backbone of the left, has been systemically hollowed by the right while Democrats failed again and again to strengthen unions when they had the chance.

Yes, the left needs a movement that rivals the Tea Party movement’s passion, reach and influence. But rather than happening with the encouragement and funding of the party’s rich donors, it might have to happen in spite of them.

There are some models for this, including the genuinely spontaneous Black Lives Matter movement, the Fight for $15 effort birthed by the Service Employees International Union, and the Bernie Sanders campaign for president, which was able to marshal small donors and large crowds even with much of the Democratic Party’s establishment working against it.

The left needs something better than a Tea Party movement because the party base needs to drag its donors’ economic agenda toward the people and not the other way around. And in American politics, dragging is expensive.

True equality of opportunity that enshrines health care as a right and puts workers on equal footing with their bosses might not have the same obvious economic constituency as eliminating the inheritance tax. But there are more of us than there are of them. And that has to be worth something.

Can The Left Stage A Tea Party?

WASHINGTON — Why hasn’t there been a tea party on the left? And can President Obama and the American left develop a functional relationship?

That those two questions are not asked very often is a sign of how much of the nation’s political energy has been monopolized by the right from the beginning of Obama’s term. This has skewed media coverage of almost every issue, created the impression that the president is far more liberal than he is, and turned the nation’s agenda away from progressive reform.

A quiet left has also been very bad for political moderates. The entire political agenda has shifted far to the right because the tea party and extremely conservative ideas have earned so much attention. The political center doesn’t stand a chance unless there is something like a fair fight between the right and the left.

It’s not surprising that Obama’s election unleashed a conservative backlash. Ironically, disillusionment with George W. Bush’s presidency had pushed Republican politics right, not left. Given the public’s negative verdict on Bush, conservatives shrewdly argued that his failures were caused by his lack of fealty to conservative doctrine. He was cast as a big spender (even if a large chunk of the largesse went to Iraq). He was called too liberal on immigration and a big government guy for bailing out the banks, using federal power to reform the schools, and championing a Medicare prescription drug benefit.

Conservative funders realized that pumping up the tea party movement was the most efficient way to build opposition to Obama’s initiatives. And the media became infatuated with the tea party in the summer of 2009, covering its disruptions of congressional town halls with an enthusiasm not visible this summer when many Republicans faced tough questions from their more progressive constituents.

Obama’s victory, in the meantime, partly demobilized the left. With Democrats in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, stepped-up organizing didn’t seem quite so urgent.

The administration was complicit in this, viewing the left’s primary role as supporting whatever the president believed needed to be done. Dissent was discouraged as counterproductive.

This was not entirely foolish. Facing ferocious resistance from the right, Obama needed all the friends he could get. He feared that left-wing criticism would meld in the public mind with right-wing criticism and weaken him overall.

But the absence of a strong, organized left made it easier for conservatives to label Obama himself as a left-winger. His health care reform is remarkably conservative — yes, it did build on the ideas implemented in Massachusetts that Mitt Romney once bragged about. It was nothing close to the single-payer plan the left always preferred. His stimulus proposal was too small, not too large. His new Wall Street regulations were a long way from a complete overhaul of American capitalism. Yet Republicans swept the 2010 elections because they painted Obama and the Democrats as being far to the left of their actual achievements.

This week, progressives will highlight a new effort to pursue the road not taken at a conference convened by the Campaign for America’s Future that opens Monday. It is a cooperative venture with a large number of other organizations, notably the American Dream Movement led by Van Jones, a former Obama administration official who wants to show the country what a truly progressive agenda around jobs, health care and equality would look like. Jones freely acknowledges that “we can learn many important lessons from the recent achievements of the libertarian, populist right,” and says of the progressive left: “This is our ‘tea party’ moment – in a positive sense.”

What’s been missing in the Obama presidency is the productive interaction with outside groups that Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed with the labor movement and Lyndon B. Johnson with the civil rights movement. Both pushed FDR and LBJ in more progressive directions while also lending them support against their conservative adversaries.

The question for the left now, says Robert Borosage of the Campaign for America’s Future, is whether progressives can “establish independence and momentum” while also being able “to make a strategic voting choice.” The idea is not to pretend that Obama is as progressive as his core supporters want him to be, but to rally support to him nonetheless as the man standing between the country and the right wing.

A real left could usefully instruct Americans as to just how moderate the president they elected in 2008 is — and how far to right conservatives have strayed.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.

(c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group