Only weeks into the new administration, town hall meetings are jammed, congressional phones are ringing off the hook and some representatives have gone AWOL rather than confront their angry constituents.
Video of constituents confronting Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz and Tennessee Rep. Diane Black, for example, has gone viral on social media and garnered significant mainstream coverage and commentary on issues ranging from Obamacare to President Trump’s ethics.
Minority party representatives have clearly gotten the message of “no compromise,” and some aspects of the majority party’s legislative agenda have shown faint signs of stalling. For those who remember the early months of the Obama administration, this all looks rather familiar. Are Trump’s opponents forming a “tea party of the left”? My years of research on the tea party suggest that there are valuable lessons for Trump’s opponents today, but only if they remember the full scope of tea party activism.
In one sense, anti-Trump activists are ahead of the game. Opposition to Trump has already mobilized vastly more people more quickly than the tea party did. Local grass-roots protests began almost as soon as President Obama was in office in 2009, but these were scattershot affairs, hardly the stuff of a national movement. In the first month, attendees often numbered only in the dozens.
What we’ve seen this year is that the Trump opposition has started out with a much bigger bang, to say the least. The Women’s March on Washington has been described as among the largest and most transformational protests in American history, and thousands-strong protests against the travel ban materialized in multiple cities within hours of the news of the President’s executive order. The Indivisible network, explicitly modeled on tea party grass-roots activism, has already shown local strength in Democratic bastions and Republican strongholds alike, something it took months for tea party groups to achieve.
But, as Hillary Clinton can surely attest, having greater numbers is not the same as winning. The rightward shift of the Republican Party was the result not only of the numbers of people who protested Obama, but also the fact that the tea party’s grass-roots efforts garnered support from powerful entities like conservative media and well-funded advocacy groups who channeled the energy of the base into particular political institutions and policy priorities. It is not yet obvious which, if any, Democratic institutions will play a similar role on the left.
Conservative media played a critical role in turning small protests into a coherent national movement. The tea party name itself came from a CNBC host, Rick Santelli, who called for a “Chicago tea party” in an on-air rant against President Obama’s housing policies. Conservative radio personalities picked up the phrase and hosted many of the early “tea party” protests. By April 2009, Fox News was promoting upcoming tea party protests, now branded as Fox News events and featuring stars like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. Fox News hosts did not demand protesters have a clear-cut set of policy demands before deeming them worthy of attention. Instead, they validated and disseminated widely the grass roots’ sense of grievance, encouraging the new “tea party” identity. Thanks to Fox News, tea party activists shared the common source of news and narrative critical to a burgeoning political movement.
At the same time, certain elements of the Republican elite were ready to take advantage of the moment. The group that most effectively rode the tea party wave was Americans for Prosperity, the largest advocacy arm of the conservative network led by far-right billionaire ideologues Charles and David Koch. Americans for Prosperity more than quadrupled its email list between 2008 and 2011, set up state chapters across the country, and played a leading role in major state-level conservative successes, such as the fight in Wisconsin to disable public sector unions. Today, the Koch network deploys money and staff on the scale of a major political party.
So in asking whether we’re at the cusp of a progressive version of the tea party movement, the question is whether Democrats can organize themselves effectively without the same media echo chamber the tea party had, and whether elements of the Democratic establishment will, as the GOP did, embrace and harness the grass-roots anti-Trump fervor into electoral success.
State legislatures will be one critical battleground to win if this series of protests is to become a coherent and sustainable movement. Like the Republicans in 2008, Democrats find themselves without an obvious national leader; the advantage of this is that it may increase attention to down-ballot races.
Should Democrats succeed in winning in the statehouses, there is another lesson to take from the tea party. Over the last eight years, Republicans focused on legislative initiatives that were ideologically appealing but also electorally strategic. Voter suppression and anti-union legislation are both policies that undercut the political power of traditionally Democratic voting groups: minorities and union workers. Given the opportunity, Democrats would benefit from prioritizing policies that foster inclusion and participation, like automatic voter registration. The best policies build power.
In the enthusiasm of the 2008 election, Barack Obama was hailed as a new FDR, who would pull the country out of economic downturn and build a lasting liberal power in Washington. Barely two years later, that dream seemed a distant memory. Ironically, that defeat has given Democrats today a source of hope — and perhaps even a game plan. They would do well to look beyond the colorful protests and packed town halls, and remember the full story of the tea party’s success.