18 July 2011

Progressives' 'American Dream House'

Last weekend, hundreds of meetings were held across the country at private homes, sympathetic businesses and public venues dubbed "American Dream Houses" for the purpose. Locally, Dream House meetings were held in Schenectady and Albany, at a cafe in the former city, the public library in the latter. Turnout was disappointing in some cases, and the results were necessarily tentative. These meetings were meant to mark the beginning of the latest attempt to create a "liberal Tea Party" movement, but declaring that intent so baldly is probably a handicap. It may be hard to remember already, but the 2009 Tea Party was not immediately identified, especially not by its grass-roots instigators, as a "conservative" movement. It had a strong populist streak rooted in its origin as an anti-bailout uprising, and the only real hope to reproduce the phenomenon is to tap into a populism that won't necessarily flock to anything explicitly "liberal" or "progressive." The prominence of such figures as Van Jones and such groups as MoveOn.org show the new movement's hand too early. Based on the opinions expressed and priorities affirmed at the two local meetings, the Dream House's initial constituency is the oldschool tax-and-spend element. They're populist in one core sense of the term in their apparent hostility to concentrated wealth. "Popular Front" might be a better term, signifying the attempt to cultivate a distinctively leftist populism. The original PF's anti-fascist sensibility was present in a Schenectady woman's anxiety about conditions supposedly resembling those of the Weimar Republic before Hitler's rise to power. The woman hesitated, however, to accuse the Tea Party and its patrons of fascism. But something like that arguably extremist, arguably intolerant attitude may be necessary to energize an uncertain populace. Paranoia may need to be answered with paranoia if the Dream House hopes to match the Tea Party's public profile. Whether that's desirable is unclear. At first glance, the Dream House looks like nothing more than another get-the-vote-out vehicle for Democrats, with perhaps a promise to primary candidates into progressive directions. But a true working-class backlash against corporate Republican austerity may well prove incompatible with progressive liberalism in at least some ways, and aligning it with the Democrats would most likely only blunt its eventual force. For now, and more so now than in the early days of the Tea Party, this purported grass-roots movement looks a lot like "astroturf."

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