I had a wonderful spring break.
I ate my mother’s cooking, slept in, and, best of all, found out that I could keep my beautiful Obamacare benefits. Paul Ryan’s good looks had so entranced us since his days as Romney’s VP pick, that we could not imagine him capable of failure. After one look into those dreamy blue eyes, who could not envision themselves living in a post-apocalyptic hellscape brought about by Ryan’s overzealous teenage reading of Atlas Shrugged? But, despite all that, Paul Ryan and the Trump administration faced a humiliating defeat on Friday when, lacking the votes to repeal and replace Obamacare, Ryan pulled the proposed replacement bill. For the time being, I will continue to indulge in getting deathly ill on the dime of the nanny state.
Liberals, progressives and dissenting conservatives have been quick to congratulate the many activists and concerned citizens who put pressure on Republicans in town hall meetings all around the country. Truly, this is a victory for the grassroots movement that has arisen in the wake of the election to oppose the most contemptible policies of the new administration and the Republican controlled legislative branch.
However, this success is also in large part due to the lingering impact of an earlier grassroots movement–the Tea Party.
And this carries pressing lessons for the coming years of left-wing activist and government efforts.
The Tea Party movement set off a major power shift in the Republican party from its center-right to its far-right component. More established Republican figures were willing to accommodate this trend and welcome the new members of the legislature backed by the Tea Party, because it helped revitalize their base in the wake of a disastrous 2008 election. Since they were out of power, this radicalization helped mobilize support for an eight year-long policy of obstructionism.
In addition, it brought out the voters who would give Republicans House in 2010 and every branch of government in 2016.
However, since they became the party of government once more, the Republicans have been crippled by the continuing influence of the Tea Party.
The House Freedom Caucus, made up of many Tea Partiers and the most conservative long time Republican members of Congress, was the key body in destroying Republican unity over the American Health Care Act.
Evidently, the grassroots organizing and brash tactics that work for getting into government can impair governance when they succeed in getting their faction into power.
This should be a dire warning for those who propose a left-wing version of Tea Party style mobilizations and radicalization to seize power in a similar manner. I agree that grassroots organizing and a new economic populist bent is the best way forward, but we must take extreme care to avoid replicating the ultimately counterproductive elements of the Tea Party movement and the Republican Party that courted it.
For example, uncompromising conservative opposition to the Affordable Care Act was in large part shaped by the feedback loop between Tea Partiers, a sensationalist Right Wing media led by Fox News and a Republican Party establishment willing to capitalize off of the mass outrage.
After a sizable chunk of Conservative America came to believe that Obamacare would set up death panels to kill their grandparents, how could leading Republicans believe that their radicalized base and rank-and-file members of congress would rally behind anything less than the complete dismemberment of the Affordable Care Act.
When compromise was needed most, the past eight years of grassroots fearmongering and radical obstructionism on the part of the Republican Party paid it back in kind.
This drift towards unrestrained sensationalism and the wholesale adoption of Tea Party tactics has already begun on the left. Jacobin, a socialist magazine popular with the growing young grassroots base of left wing politics, recently published a piece calling for a “Breitbart for the Left” because “objectivity, decency… are like tried and true antibiotics that suddenly no longer work.”
And The Intercept released a podcast entitled “Could Trump Start WWIII?” Casually implying that Trump might set off a nuclear holocaust is no better than stating that Obamacare will kill grandma. Are the ideological bedrocks of each claim different? Absolutely. Are the political impacts different? I’m not so sure.
How can we stop this drift into an ultimately self-defeating political hysteria? Of course we should not stop grassroots mobilizations.
But I would implore anybody on the left wing to do a few things: block the Leftist clickbait on your Facebook feed. You probably will not read those articles so all you will have in your head is a misleading caption. If you have the wherewithal, start reading one conservative news source. Something like the Wall Street Journal or The Federalist that, although not ideologically aligned with Trump, will give details of his policies that left-wing sources might conveniently exclude. Make an effort to grasp the internal logic of the conservative movement instead of dismissing half the country as “deplorable.”
There will be a day when the Democrats make their return to power. Trump will have left behind a set of policies and laws to confront. More importantly, his ultra-conservative Supreme Court will be there to check any radical efforts to undo Trumps legacy.
It will take time to undo the damage, and it will take patience. There will be deals that have to be cut, and the dirty work of governance will have to replace the righteous purity of activism out of power. The grassroots coalition that will, hopefully, revitalize the Democratic party must not bring a left equivalent of the House Freedom Caucus into being. To avoid this fate, we need to recognize that we are naturally no smarter than the conservatives, and no more immune to the temptations of extremism. When extremism goes uninterrogated, leftists fall into the same ideological traps as their opponents. Tempering these natural inclinations is essential to paving a realistic and just path forward.