Over the last few days, a number of Republican congressmen have been getting an earful from their constituents at town halls over the Affordable Care Act. Seems now that they control both houses of Congress AND the White House, their pledge to repeal the law is causing a great deal of consternation among a large number of people who stand to lose healthcare coverage. How large? About 20 million.
The GOP is learning the hard way that it's a lot easier to run on a promise to do something than it is to actually follow through on it. Funny, so long as Barack Obama was president, they could shoot off their mouths all they wanted about what they were going to do if they won the White House. Now that they have it, they sound more like Ralph Kramden muttering the old "homina, homina" line. Like the proverbial Monday-morning quarterback who suddenly finds himself on the 50 yard line having to actually throw the football, Republicans now find themselves in the unenviable position of having to put up or shut up.
And some of them are shutting up, or at least their voices are being drowned out by the crowds at these town halls. Ironic isn't it? Eight years ago it was the Democrats who were catching hell at those same town halls. That was the year of the rise of the Tea Party, and while few if any thought much about it, within a few months it grew into a national force that swept the Republicans into power in the House of Representatives and a significant number of state houses.
Are we now witnessing the birth of a Democratic Tea Party? And if so, would such a movement help or hurt Democrats? The answer to the former will come in due time. It is too early to tell whether these town hall protests will develop into a much larger and more focused movement. We all know what happened to the Occupy Wall Street movement.
When it first appeared, the original Tea Party was more of a populist grass roots movement that was spontaneous. Then it was coopted by people like Dick Armey whose group Freedomworks ostensibly took over the movement and turned it into a right-wing engine to take back power from Democrats. It worked like a charm. The Tea Party is now so powerful that Republicans are more worried about being primaried than they are about losing a general election.
Which brings us to my second, and perhaps more salient, question: would a Democratic Tea Party help or hurt Democrats? That depends on how you define the two terms. On the one hand, it's impossible to look at what has happened over the last seven years and not conclude that the Tea Party helped the GOP take back the reigns of power, not just in Washington but throughout the country. You'd have to be blind not to see it.
But on the other hand the Tea Party was also responsible for the current state of polarization that has gripped the nation. The gulf between Left and Right has never been wider than it has these last few years and, according to many pundits, it is the primary culprit behind the malignancy that has spread throughout the body politic. Legislatures no longer legislate; instead they obstruct the other side. The primary business of Washington appears to be preventing the opponent from scoring a victory. The result is a paralysis where nothing gets done and the general electorate grows more and more frustrated and disillusioned.
So in the short run, the Tea Party was a smashing success; it accomplished its goals. But in the long run, its legacy to the Republic is a dysfunctional government that has become the laughing stock of the West. With that in mind, why would Democrats want to replicate such a movement? The answer is probably not, but they may have no choice in the matter.
Just like what happened in '09 when the Right began to mobilize, the unrest within the Left is beginning to coalesce around issues like healthcare, women's reproductive rights, voting rights, the environment, etc... Democrats are feeling pressure from their base to stand up to the Trump Administration and Congressional Republicans. Chuck Schumer, the Senate Minority Leader, has had protesters in front of his New York City headquarters for the last couple of weeks. I can assure you they are not there to get his autograph.
To a certain extent this unrest within the Left is nothing new. I have written about it several times. It goes all the way back to the Clinton Administration. Despite electoral success at the national level, progressives felt they were sold down the river. They've been trying to regain control of the party apparatus ever since. Obama was supposed to be the deliverer, but once in office he learned what every politician knows all too well: that it's a lot easier to campaign than it is to govern. For many of them, hope and change turned into the same old song.
Bernie Sanders, in many ways, represented what so many of them had been craving for: a true independent who despised the Democratic Party almost as much as he despised the Republican. Bernie had few friends in Washington and both he and his supporters preferred it that way. He detested what the party had become and warned the rank and file that it was courting disaster if it didn't start paying attention to the millions of disaffected voters in the Rust Belt states.
Many Democrats - myself included - dismissed Sanders' warning as alarmist rhetoric, but the results in last November's election proved him right. The Democratic Party, in its zeal to become an all-inclusive party that championed the rights of minorities, had forgotten about the multitudes of white, working class voters. And because of that, many of them ended up voting for Trump; not because they wanted to, but because they felt that the Democrats had abandoned them. It didn't help matters any that Hillary Clinton spent most of her campaign trashing Trump instead of talking about her plans to help these people.
So once again, the Left is rising up. Progressives who had propelled Bernie to a strong second place finish in last year's primary, are poised to strike again. And this time, they appear to mean business. The Elizabeth Warrens of the party are standing up and speaking out. Warren was silenced on the floor of the Senate for having the temerity of reading from a Coretta Scott King letter regarding Jeff Sessions. This has only inflamed the base even more. The protests are getting larger and the voices louder.
If I were a betting man, I'd lay odds that this movement is here to stay and we're in for a battle royale for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party. And while part of me applauds this, I have some concerns. For one thing, while most of the energy may be on the Right and Left, a good chunk of the country still identifies as either moderate or independent. These voters are not motivated by wedge issues; some may be for raising the minimum wage, but for lower taxes; some may be for equal pay, but still be pro life; some may be for voting rights, but feel a little uncomfortable with the LGBT community; and some are concerned about the rash of black shootings by cops, but still may be put off by the Black Lives Matter movement. They don't run with the pack.
There is another, even bigger, concern I have. The original Tea Party was a monolithic movement comprised mainly of white people; A LOT of white people. The Democratic Party is anything but monolithic. It's a big tent. That is both its greatest strength and, unfortunately, its greatest weakness.
If this new Tea Party is to be effective, it's going to have to thread a needle between the core of the Democratic base, which is the urban voter, and the more suburban / rural voter. Michael Tomasky had an excellent piece on this that I've referenced before and do so now. One passage is particularly worth noting
But here is American liberalism’s biggest short-term job, what should be its 2017 New Year’s Resolution, and some of you aren’t going to like it: See to it that multiculturalism includes white people. And not urban white people or Jewish white people or gay white people or white people who live in hipster neighborhoods and wear ironic eyewear. Suburban, gray-haired, church-going white people.This won't be easy, but then nothing worth while ever is. The Democratic Party has a lot of amends to make to a lot of people who out of desperation did the unthinkable last November. If they ever expect to pull these voters back into the fold, they are going to have to bite down hard and swallow. They are going to have to contend with an electorate that loves Adele as much as it does Beyonce.
Remember, the same country that elected Obama, also elected Trump. Think about that.