Learning From the Tea Party

Looking at the role the Tea Party movement plays in the Republican presidential nominating process, it is hard not to be envious. In contrast to the Right's clout in the GOP, the Tea Party's progressive counterpart -- Occupy Wall Street (OWS) -- possesses almost no influence among Democrats. The right-wing social movement has been able to leverage a very real change in the political landscape. The other side has nothing politically to show for itself.

In their very important book on the Tea Party movement, Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson write that a February 2009 rant against foreclosure assistance by Rick Santelli on CNBC resulted in "local activists operating without central direction creat[ing] legions of local Tea parties meeting regularly, usually once a month, but in some cases weekly." In addition to these organizing efforts, Tea Party activists held protests in numerous cities. Recognizing this energy at the conservative grassroots, Fox News joined in and big money donors provided funding.

What the Tea Party has done with its now well-financed activism is to exert power within the Republican Party. In this, it had important allies. But it was the grassroots activists who according to Skocpol and Williamson "set a national agenda for the election," resulting in their ability to claim the 2010 Republican victories "as vindication for a particular extreme conservative ideology."

Two years later the Occupy Wall Street movement emerged claiming in its own words "to protest the blatant injustices of our times perpetuated by the economic and political elites." As occurred with the Tea Party movement, elements of the media, in particular MSNBC, provided favorable coverage to OWS. Funding too was available, albeit at a much lower level than had been contributed to conservatives by right-wing donors.

But one big difference exists between the right-wing movement and the progressive one. The former engages in politics but the latter does not. As Skocpol and Williamson put it, the Tea Party sees itself as "watchdogs barking at GOP heels." In contrast, the OWS's "Principles of Solidarity" say not one word about participating in the political world in order to rectify the grievances that they correctly identify. Of the eight points of unity agreed upon by OWS, neither of the two major political parties is mentioned; nor is the possibility of creating a third party.

Another way of saying the same thing is that the Right has devised a workable strategy by which to achieve its agenda. Progressives have not.

That is not to say that the Tea Party and its allies have had smooth sailing. There are important differences within the movement between for example libertarians and social conservatives. But it is a mark of the political sophistication created when movements participate in electoral politics that those conflicts have been papered over in the name of achieving political success.

To reverse the trend toward increasing inequality, a political strategy will have to be devised. To be politically effective, Progressives too will have to accommodate differences. Some desirable political initiatives will have to be delayed in order to achieve others that are accorded higher priority. In part that means choosing the ones that have the most electoral appeal. But making such choices involves a level of political acumen that goes undeveloped when a movement chooses to absent itself from electoral politics. Hard choices are avoided; the establishing of priorities neglected.

My own view is that we will not move to greater economic equality until and unless we first achieve greater political equality. We have to change, I think, how candidates are funded when they run for office. At the moment, we possess an electoral system in which wealthy people's campaign contributions enable them to shape the rules, including those that determine the distribution of income and the accumulation of wealth. The outcome is not surprising. Those rules and the institutions that enforce them are biased to the interests of the elite.

Seen in this perspective, achieving greater economic equality is a political task. The political process needs to impose a wall between political and economic power. Wealthy people should not be allowed to have disproportionate influence. Their political weight should not be greater than that of anyone else.

The logic here suggests that the public funding of elections is the reform necessary to arrest the trend toward income inequality. I think that treating elections as a public good is the only way effectively to wall off the wealthy.

However the larger point here is not that. It is that whatever is to be accomplished will require legislation. Laws and policies will have to be changed. And for that to happen advocates of equality have to participate in politics.

It is in this way that the Tea Party has a lot to teach progressives. A movement is, of course, necessary. But the movement must be focused and directed to what ultimately must be the goal: radical reform legislation.