We need our own Tea Party: The fight is much more than Hillary v. Warren

The Democratic Party's a corrupt, empty husk. But it offers a way forward if, like Maddow, we have the right debate

Published February 1, 2015 12:00PM (EST)

Rachel Maddow         (MSNBC)
Rachel Maddow (MSNBC)

It’s barely 2015 but 2016 is busting out all over. No fewer than 24 Republicans threaten White House runs. In January a dozen or so went to Iowa to pay homage to popular xenophobe Steve King at an event King humbly dubbed the Freedom Summit. At a tonier soiree that same weekend in Rancho Mirage, California, the Koch brothers pledged to raise precisely $889 million to buy the election outright.

Democrats can’t hold summits because only one of them, ex-Virginia Senator Jim Webb, has so much as filed an exploratory committee. But their game is on too. Obama’s populist-tinged State of the Union speech was widely seen as an attempt to frame the next debate. Hillary Clinton hasn’t filed yet but an ‘independent’ Super PAC aims to raise $300 million in her name. (Someone should tell her.)

Many progressives want a different standard bearer. MoveOn.org is spending a million dollars to draft Elizabeth Warren. A few other possible entrants linger on the sidelines. Ex-Maryland governor Martin O’Malley says he might run as Warren. Bernie Sanders might run as himself.

The MoveOn campaign has an added benefit of making Democrats listen up. But what if Warren never runs? What if O’Malley proves to be just another pol and Sanders proves too reluctant or rough edged for the big stage? Should MoveOn spend another million on a draft campaign? How about $10 million? Where does this strategy end?

It’s a rare candidate who’s both reliable and effective. Often we back candidates to raise issues but it’s like studying Latin to increase your vocabulary; it works but not as well as studying vocabulary. Progressives and the organizations that purport to represent them need to get better at raising their own issues. Call it direct action.

It’s time progressives had a real conversation about strategy and goals. With public opinion moving our way as it hasn’t in at least eight and arguably 80 years we have a chance not just to elect Democrats but to enact vital reforms. Republicans scoff but their late awkward scrambling on income inequality and global warming betrays their anxiety. Still, success takes preparation. Progressives must shape a new agenda, craft a new strategy and build a new movement. We’ve neglected this work for so long many forget how to do it. Here’s a guide to getting started.

You can’t have a conversation if the people you want in it aren’t even on speaking terms. Progressives are deeply divided; not by interest or ideology -- cultural versus economic, environment versus foreign policy — than by their attitudes toward Democrats and by what are in essence tactical issues. There are four basic groups.

The first likes the Democratic Party and is, as it says, ready for Hillary. The second works with Democrats but puts Hillary somewhere in a line that runs from ‘flawed candidate’ to ‘spawn of Satan.’ The third thinks Democrats hopelessly corrupt and backs independents or third parties. The fourth has given up on politics. If the last isn’t the largest group it’s the fastest growing. If we don’t get it back, we don’t win.

These groups are united by shared values and a deep contempt for one another. (If you doubt it see the comments section below). The pro-Hillary group sees those not already on board as naïve and ineffectual purists.  Anti-Hillary Democrats see her as a politician who works for Goldman Sachs and loves war. Both are heartened by Obama’s rising polls and new populist message and count on presidential turnout to buoy Democrats’ chances of keeping the White House and retaking the Senate.

Third partiers and political renunciates had long distrusted Hillary and now distrust Obama. Both view money in politics in an almost mechanistic way. Both think politics is so mortgaged to moneyed interests as to render reform unachievable, or nearly so. In a sense they’re like those Democrats who say the power of money makes their chosen compromises unavoidable and thus justifiable. Nor are they far from the ever darkening views of most Americans as revealed in countless polls.

Though tactical, the groups’ disagreements are so deeply felt it’s hard at first to imagine them conversing. But the subject of building a stronger, more independent progressive movement may draw them in precisely because it transcends or at least precedes their differences, and because it is so provably in their interests.

To see it, pro-Hillary progressives must be reminded of the steep hill she’s yet to climb and of the last time their heroine tried to talk a public bent on revolution into settling for a restoration instead. Both pro-Democratic groups must be told that the ballyhooed rise in Obama’s approval rating averages out to just four percent, that third terms are seldom the charm, and that Democrats aren’t likely to find themselves in as strong a financial position in 2016 as they did in 2012 and 2008.

Two points mean even more than all of that. The first is that Democrats can’t count on a flood tide of presidential turnout. As with our economy, the crisis of our democracy is structural, not cyclical. In 2014 millions of voters stayed home not out of laziness but as a conscious choice born of profound civic alienation. It won’t do just to scold them. We must persuade them that what we have on offer is genuine reform. The Democratic establishment is ill equipped to make that case.

The second point is that far from being a threat, a free and open debate progressive debate may be the Democrats’ salvation. Democrats are supposed to be the party of change but life in the bubble taught them to resist change. For nearly a century progressives made the policies that Democrats made into laws. As they became domesticated to Washington and the Democrats, they stopped challenging their keepers with new ideas and reminders of old values. A once vital symbiosis turned morbidly parasitical. It’s time to get things back the way they were.

The non-Democrats don’t need to be persuaded of the need for an independent progressive movement but they have other concerns. Each group has its own concern. The renunciates worry that all political action is futile and ask whether any movement can overcome the power of big money. It’s a good question.

Progressives want to believe the power of ideas is greater than the power of money, but they don’t. They forget that whenever economic reform is enacted—when FDR got the 40-hour week or Elizabeth Warren got her Consumer Finance Protection Bureau—ideas beat money. They do it all the time because the power of ideas is the power of public opinion and in a democracy public opinion trumps all.

Third partiers worry that anything big donors help fund or old line liberal lobbies help strategize will end up reelecting hacks. It relates to the core concern about the role of money. Are Democrats too corrupt to save? Party leaders may sniff at the question but they should do so quietly, as it is one the country asks as well.

For many progressives it’s the key strategic question: can you be independent and operate within the Democratic Party? For third partiers it’s a settled point. You can’t. But others are still mulling it over. I’ve stated my own views before but it’s such a critical and tender issue I’ll repeat them here.

As it is now organized and led, the Democratic Party is a corrupt and empty husk of an institution. But for all its patent defects I believe it offers the most direct path to progressive governance. The obvious model is the Tea Party which in six years scaled Republican walls and gained sway over federal and state government. What progressive does not envy it? And yet there’s been no effort to challenge the worst Wall Street Democrats in primaries or even to withhold support in general elections; no attempt to create an agenda or even the public face of a movement.

It baffles me, yet divisions run so deep that conversations on these points are often non-starters. So many progressives think the Democrats not worth saving. Yet in just two months since their midterm debacle, the sting of defeat and the power of public opinion have moved them to affect a conversion experience. Think what they might do if a powerful progressive movement were in place to hold them to account. Perhaps nothing but there’s only one way to find out.

The beauty of a conversation about an independent progressive movement is that one needn’t settle this argument to have it. If it’s truly a grass roots movement those who distrust Democrats will know it won’t be easily bought. At the same time Democrats worried over their party’s intellectual stagnation and general low spirits can take comfort knowing a strong progressive movement is at hand to offer fresh ideas and energize its dormant base.

Assuming enough stakeholders want in on the discussion, the key questions are what it takes to build the movement and what issues belong on its agenda. The second question will need its own column but let me offer up for debate a few points regarding movement building.

Too many grass roots movements have devolved into mere Washington lobbyists. We must identify the organizations that maintained their independence, that take risks and that are capable of strategic thinking. There are fewer of them than one might wish but more than one may fear. Some examples:

Under the leadership of Miles Rapoport, former head of Demos and a veteran of the citizen action movement, Common Cause is reasserting itself after years of relative quietude. It’s apt to broaden its portfolio but the good news is its core issue of public ethics has left it with so few powerful friends it can’t care much about losing them. It’s perfectly positioned to address the issue progressives most neglect, public corruption.

Two other venerable organizations, the Public Interest Research Groups and the League of Women Voters have long demonstrated a healthy disregard for establishment opinion. Like Common Cause, neither the League nor the PIRGSs will ever get involved in electoral politics. But a new movement must by all appropriate means involve those whose policy work it values most.

Among newer organizations my own favorite is 350.org partly because it engages so effectively the preeminent issue of our time, climate change, and partly because it does so by honoring the core values of grass roots democracy and organizing. The climate march it spearheaded last fall in New York was a model of both.

On the electoral side two groups bear mention. The most obvious is MoveOn.org the web phenom that comes close to pulling off the hardest stunt in politics: the nurturing of on line democracy. The other is the Working Families Party. It’s had a few inevitable stumbles but on balance no one’s smarter on the key question of how to be independent while working largely within the confines of a major party. If anybody figures out how to be the Democrats’ Tea Party, it will be them.

Left off this list are two powerful forces. One is the progressive web roots; hard to organize and impossible to instruct they’ll have enormous influence on any progressive debate. The other is the labor movement, without which there’d be no middle class and no movement to build on. Its choices affect every progressive movement and its changes merit a column of their own.

You can’t build a movement whole cloth. Every movement is a floating adhocracy on which no one can graft rigid structures. The Tea Party itself is more a brand than an institution. But when people cry out for change, organizations evolve and movements sprout. I think this is such a moment and while no monolithic change can ever be imposed there are a few principles deserving of wide application.

It isn’t a money race. No doubt when the Kochs pledged their $889 million many Democrats scurried to find even more money. It’s tragic because what they do to get it hurts them politically. Ironic too; if they did what’s right they’d start out ahead and when you’re ahead even people who hate you give you money.

It’ll help if a few rich donors lend a hand but if Obama can solve the riddle of grass roots fundraising so can we. And we should spend our money on other things. Pundits talk of the ‘endless campaigns’ of politicians who use the techniques of campaigns to govern. We need seamless campaigns that inject more policy into politic. It may sound naïve but you know it’ll work better than last year’s ads.

Progressives use all the modern marketing tools. Such tools are fine for pols who built careers distorting basic math and science. But if logic and evidence are on your side why not use them? Not doing so is a form of unilateral political disarmament. Progressives of old made such meticulous arguments that to read them now feels like eavesdropping on Olympus.  We need to be more like them.

So how do we start this conversation? It must start with the media and then quickly extend to leaders of progressive organizations or else die. It shouldn’t be held in Rancho Mirage or behind closed doors anywhere. Any progressive organizations struggling with these and related questions should rent out a hall or release videos or publish their notes. It’s who we are and it’s the only way this happens.

If you’re a Salon reader you know the conversation is already going on here. I’ll do my best to keep it going in this column. Some fine writers are on the case. More will join in. It’s harder to interest TV, where just about everyone’s in the business of covering horse races or defending one or the other major party. Two people who have both the right format and the right quality of mind are Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes of MSNBC. There are a few others like them, but not many.

In the end it’s up to each of us, as it always is. Tricked by the optical illusion of power we wait on forces and postpone choices until one day having had all we can take we stand up. And then the world changes.

By Bill Curry

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Bill Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut.

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