Monday, October 3, 2011

On the Idea of a Tea-Party of the Left

E.J. Doinne talks about the short-comings of the American grass-roots left. While this is interesting, I fear it is also grossly oversimplified. First, he uses the discrepancies in media coverage between conservative and leftist grass-roots groups to set up his idea of the "quiet left." But there is, I think, a difference between being quiet and being ignored.  Media coverage is almost always going to be weaker for the left because so much of it makes for "bad" television. The themes and the tactics of grass-roots liberalism have been around for years and don't jog well with interests of media owners anyway. So of course a "new" grass-roots conservative movement is going to get coverage. That doesn't mean progressive groups are not or were not out there. On the contrary, the very longevity of these groups is likely to work against them in the media. Simply put, it isn't news if it isn't new. A protest in Berkley by radical student activists doesn't get coverage because it's nothing new. Radical - and often irrational - grass-roots groups holding the GOP hostage on the other hand is very new and subsequently worth printing.

Second, Dionne blames Democratic failings in 2010 on the "absence of a strong organized left.". But what he doesn't take into account are some of the quirks of our electoral system. This is a system that tends to discourage intra-party competition, especially when that party is defending a majority. Democratic party leaders in many states have often campaigned against the very idea of primary challengers on the grounds that they might "weaken" an incumbent and threaten a party majority. In 2010, an election where the "left" party was defending a majority which wasn't particularly popular, I suspect that state primary laws played a significant role. Added to this is the lack of basic civic education on the part of the voters. Voters in mid-term elections tend to be more politically active and have better formed political identities. They are also a comparatively small slice of the electorate. Unaffiliated voters make up the largest slice in a majority of states. This means that they are not only less committed to concepts like preserving the party majority but also, in many states at least, barred from competing in the candidate selection process. This makes them notoriously difficult to mobilize.

That being said, I will agree with Dionne that the tea-party phenomenon has certain organizational advantages over their leftist counter-parts. Chief among these, in my mind at least, is their willingness to sacrifice the electable candidate in favor of the "correct" one.  Much of the TPs strength comes from its willingness to pursue aggressive primary challenges regardless of the effect this might have on party fortunes. This has forced many candidates - particularly House candidates - to adopt more conservative policy positions, which they then must carry into office if they are to stave off a challenge in the next cycle. This primary threat is something the left could stand to adopt. If leftist groups have one glaring weakness, it is that we fear the GOP more than we want to reform the Democrats. This has made us less willing to risk the party position over individual candidates, and we need to get over it.  The public primary was a progressive tool intended to give voters more control over party decision making. How ironic that this tool is now being leveraged to undo all that the American left has thus far achieved.