17 November 2009

Invitation to an "Anti-Tea Party"

The Albany paper has picked up a column from a Florida paper that expresses liberal frustration with the limited accomplishments of the Obama administration and obvious envy of the tea-party movement. The writer, Rhonda Swan, sees the tea parties primarily as means for conservatives to exert pressure on Republican politicians, and wants a progressive counterpart to apply similar pressure on Democrats. She seems to recommend this kind of activism as a more effective alternative to forming new parties, citing alleged successes the tea-partiers have had enforcing ideological discipline on Republicans.

What passes for debate on Capitol Hill is partisan bickering over narrowly perceived policy ideas. Such is the problem with our two-party political system. The Tea Partiers, like members of the Libertarian Party, Green Party and Progressive Libertarian Party before them, want something different. That is the beauty of the U.S. political system. They can get it.

Third-party promoters may note with dismay the implication that the Libertarians and Greens are obsolete, or have been rendered obsolete, by tea-party activism. There's at least one other questionable assumption in that excerpt: the idea that the tea-partiers have "got" what they wanted and should be satisfied with their alleged successes. The perception that the Republican party is now more dogmatically conservative than ever, and presumably will engage in even more "partisan bickering over narrowly perceived policy ideas," proves that the beautiful U.S. political system, despite its two-party "problem," works, i.e. is responsive to concentrated activism.

Swan wants the President to give up his bipartisan pipe dreams and concentrate on whipping the "wimps" in the Democratic party into line. She believes that progressive activism on the tea-party model -- the "Anti-Tea Party Express" -- can help him by pressuring Democratic waverers to support the health care legislation. She'd also like to see an ATPE pressure legislative leaders to purge Joe Lieberman from the Democratic caucus and strip him of his Homeland Security chairmanship. The original tea-partiers would do the same if a Republican Senator were similarly heretical, Swan assumes.

Obviously there's nothing wrong with progressives organizing and holding demonstrations to demand passage of important legislation. But I think Swan is missing something if she assumes that the original Tea Parties were mainly if not only about pressuring elected officials, and she'd miss it again if she wants an ATPE to come into being solely to pressure Democratic politicians. It seems to me, whether I liked it or not, that the tea partiers (not to mention the organizers of the "Great Awakening" I visited in Troy last September) weren't out only to send a message to politicians. These were efforts to communicate to the general public, to raise alarms (however irrational in some cases) about government gone wrong and to form connections and opinion networks that just might exist outside the influence of the major political parties. If progressives are to answer the tea parties, they should be aiming their own activism, not just at Washington or the nearest state capital, but at the people around them. The tea parties did a good job, I fear, in spreading fear this year. Any ATPE that hopes to succeed must spread truth and principle as widely as the tea-partiers spread their (call it what you will) across the American landscape.

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