In the aftermath of the brinksmanship which nearly led the United States to default on its debt, and which ultimately led S&P to downgrade the U.S. credit rating, much of the discussion has dealt with the concept of “hostage taking” and the irresponsible behavior of the Tea Party Caucus. As someone who has absolutely no love for the Tea Party and its Archie Bunker tendencies, it almost pains me to say this, but I have absolutely no problem with its hostage taking tactics. Instead of complaining about it, progressive ought to be taking notes.
Arguably, had progressives engaged in some hostage taking of their own during the Democrat controlled 110th Congress, perhaps health care reform would have included a public option. Or perhaps President Obama would not have been forced to cave in on extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich.
What’s that you say? The progressives don’t have the same voting power as the Tea Partiers? Not so. While the House Tea Party Caucus claims 60 members, 17 of whom are freshmen elected in the 2010 Republican takeover, the Progressive Caucus consists of 74 members, making it the largest Democratic caucus. So why is the Tea Party having so much more influence over the Republican Party (and by extension, the national debate) than progressives are having over the Democratic Party.
Winning Isn’t Everything
The truth of the matter is that the Tea Party’s hostage taking did not start with the debt ceiling debate. Its first efforts at hostage taking were during a special election that took place prior to the 2010 midterm elections. During this election in New York’s 23rd Congressional District, the Tea Party zealots demonstrated that not only were they willing to challenge establishment republicans in primary elections, but they were willing to run independent candidates as well -- candidates guaranteed to split the conservative vote. As a result, the Tea Party was blamed for allowing a Democrat to win a New York district that had been held by a Republican for more than 100 years.
Later, during the November elections, Tea Party favorites Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle were blamed for allowing the Democrats to hold a majority in the Senate. So while there are plenty of ideological differences between Tea Partiers and progressives, perhaps the most important difference is a strategic one. Quite simply, the Tea Party doesn’t mind losing in order to make its point.
Although many observers took these losses and widespread criticisms as a sign that the Tea Party would decline in strength, the truth has been quite the opposite. Today, Speaker Boehner’s biggest fear is that the Tea Party will “primary” some of his key members, or even worse, that Tea Party candidates will split the vote in the general election. It’s this fear more than anything else which led him to turn down President Obama’s “grand bargain” on the debt ceiling.
Progressives are usually a lot more attached to getting a win. Possibly it’s because we generally represent interest that don’t get to win much, so we become more willing to compromise in order to get a moral victory. Or possibly it’s because we care so much about those we serve, often society’s most vulnerable, that we can’t stand the thought of the collateral damage that would accompany a strategic loss. Regardless of the source, progressives are going to have to become more willing to lose a couple of battles in order to win the larger war.
All Politics is Local
The Tea Party also understands that all movements start at the local level, or as one wise man once said, “all politics is local”. True enough, we know that the origins of the Tea Party were more Astroturf than grassroots, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Astroturf fertilizer tapped into some very real, very primal (and, I would argue, very racial) emotions at the grassroots level.
After all, it’s no coincidence that at the same time that the Tea Party is exerting its influence in Congress, we are also witnessing a wave of conservative legislative attacks against labor unions, voting rights, abortion rights, immigration and gay marriage.
In contrast, progressives often rely on presidential politics to make a point and/or to start a national movement. This trend may have started as far back as Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson, and it is more recently evidenced by the infatuation with Ralph Nader. Even today there are whispers of challenging President Obama from the left in the Democratic Primary. Progressives would be much better off focusing on Congress and the state legislatures.
Follow the Money
In order to focus on a Congressional strategy, progressives must learn a third lesson from the Tea Party—in order to have independent politics you must have independent funding. Part of the reason the Tea Party Caucus could go against the will of House Speaker Boehner and the Republican establishment is because they did not rely on Boehner or establishment funding in order to win their elections. Quite the contrary, many of the Tea Party candidates won their elections in spite of funds being funneled to other more traditional Republican candidates.
Too often, progressives rely on the support of big time fundraisers like Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic National Committee and other establishment sources to financially carry their campaigns. As long as this is the case, progressive efforts to move the Democratic leadership to the left will be severely limited.
The Way Forward
Some Progressives have recognized that we need to rethink our national campaign strategies. In an analysis written right after the 2010 elections, Darcy Burner of ProgressiveCongress.org outlined 13 suggestions for progressives to consider, including the need to “fix the way we do campaigns” and to be more strategic in how we select districts.
And more recently, Eugene Robinson wrote about how progressives need a “Big Idea”, something that can fit on a bumper sticker in order to counter the conservative mantra of “cut taxes, cut spending”. But all of the recent criticisms of “hostage taking” cause me to worry that even with a well thought out strategy and effective messaging, progressives may still be the ones to blink when the critical moment comes.
Yes, I know that hostage taking is a little harder when you’re in the minority. But heck, if 14 Wisconsin state senators can successfully halt legislation, generate a mass movement and attract the nation’s attention and resources, I refuse to believe there’s nothing 74 congressional Democrats can do. We have a blueprint. We need elected officials willing to take some hostages, and we need waves of supporters willing to take to the streets. What we don’t need is to waste time trying to figure out which needs to come first.