Needed: A Democratic Tea Party

The Tea Party's assault on establishment Republicans has been good for Democrats. It would be good too - for everyone, except Blue Dogs and the Democratic establishment -- if Democrats had a tea party of their own.

The Tea Party was a contrivance of political entrepreneurs, but it has grown to a point where it is slipping out of control. But it is still hardly a social movement in the way that, say, classical fascism was; it remains mainly an electoral phenomenon. Thus the challenge it poses is to our duopoly party system, not to the regime the duopoly superintends.

The Tea Party's express aim is to promote small government, tax cutting, and "constitutional" jurisprudence. This is not the place to press how fundamentally wrong-headed these objectives are, but I must note how bizarre the Tea Party's purchase on them is.

The government they want to shrink does not include the military or the bloated national security state, and Tea Partiers have had no problem with, for example, Arizona's "papers please" law or with other racist, nativist and islamophobic inspired assaults on privacy and freedom. Many Tea Partiers would even deploy state power to proscribe abortion in all circumstances, including incest or rape. The taxes they want to cut mainly affect the very rich, not themselves. And their opposition to "judicial activism" is, to put it mildly, selective. When activist Supreme Court justices overturned a century's worth of precedents by doing away with already feeble constraints on corporate campaign contributions, Tea Partiers were on board.

Like the evangelicals and Catholic conservatives Republicans have been courting for decades, Tea Partiers are "useful idiots," serving the interests of those at the top of the economic pyramid. But they are not entirely under their masters' control. Because they feel threatened by social dislocation and economic turbulence, they have grown angry in ways that put them at odds with the leadership of the GOP, the party their masters favor most.

The prognosis: the Tea Party is likely to peak soon, if it hasn't already; and, by scaring away "independents" and motivating otherwise unenthused Democrats to vote against them, they are likely to help Democrats on November 2. However, they are also dragging the political scene rightward.

That is precisely what rank and file Tea Partiers want. Their aim is to make the ambient culture more congenial for people like themselves. For that, it is not necessary that Republicans regain control of Congress, though Tea Partiers would doubtless welcome Republican victories. The important thing for them is to realize their objectives, and they are already succeeding just by nipping at the Republican establishment's heels.

A Democratic equivalent of the Tea Party would have a very different aim -- to staunch the rightward drift that has afflicted the Democratic Party continuously, its Obamamiacal moment excepted, since the Clinton era. This is hardly a radical vision, though the party has declined morally and intellectually to a point where restoring decency and bringing the United States into the mid-twentieth century now almost seems extremist.

Since both Democrats and Republicans feed from the same trough, it is hardly surprising that on issues of consequence to those who call the shots, their policies are essentially the same -- though Democrats tend to be kinder and gentler and less transparently abject. On "cultural" matters of no consequence to the duopoly's paymasters, there are more significant disagreements. These comparatively slight differences can have major consequences. This is why even "moderate" Republicans, the few that are left, are generally worse than their rivals.

Still one cannot but admire how much more proficient Republicans are at working the system. Not even the Democratic landslide of 2008 kept them down. In contrast, Democrats seem congenitally incapable of mobilizing cohesively. Their left fringe especially has been remarkably unable to leverage its power. They have much to answer for. If only they had operated more like Republicans, they would have stopped the Iraq War!

Tea Party militants favor candidates who are ridiculously undistinguished, and their liking for certifiable wing nuts is truly remarkable. This is how they mark out their difference from the Republican establishment, whose marginally more plausible candidates at least evince a certain gravitas. A Democratic Tea Party candidate would have no similar need to flaunt ignorance or incompetence. To mark off a difference from mainstream Democrats it would be enough to show signs of possessing a backbone.

True to the wishes of the political entrepreneurs who brought the movement into being, the Tea Party has generally steered away from divisive "social" issues, though there is little doubt where most Tea Partiers stand. A Democratic Tea Party would do well to follow their lead by focusing on issues on which there is a broad consensus among people who still have the sense they were born with. There are many such issues around: bringing Bush era war criminals to justice, stopping on-going and future wars, taking real action on impending environmental catastrophes and, above all, holding Wall Street moguls and other corporate malefactors to account.

This wouldn't be enough to bring about the "change" erstwhile Obamamaniacs thought they voted for; that would require a real social movement. But a Democratic Tea Party, focused on electoral outcomes, would encourage the conditions for such a movement to develop even if, in the face of the learned pusillanimity of Democratic voters, it registered few electoral successes. It would drag the party onto a more leftward course.

I would venture that a more "audacious" Democratic Party would do better electorally than the one we have. But even if I'm wrong about that, it is clear that a Democratic Tea Party wouldn't help Republicans to nearly the extent that the actual Tea Party will help Democrats. In any case, as even benighted Tea Partiers understand, there are more important matters at stake than who wins elections or even who runs Congress. The point is to affect policy and to transform the political culture.

Unfortunately, for the 2010 elections, it's already too late for a Democratic Tea Party to rise; and, looking ahead, where would Democratic insurgents find the kind of funding that made the original Tea Party possible? The only way forward therefore is to organize from the grass roots - not the astroturf -- up. For that to happen, the first order of business is to stop cutting Obama slack and to stop being there for Democrats, no matter how awful they are.

This doesn't mean not turning out to vote against Republicans in 2010. It means making sure that Democrats understand that our votes are not for them, but against an alternative that is even worse. Democrats can win elections just by letting Tea Party assisted Republicans lose. But if they want genuine support, not to mention respect, they'll have to turn full circle and start earning it.