Organize or Die: The Left Needs Its Own Tea Party | News Feature | Indy Week
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Organize or Die: The Left Needs Its Own Tea Party 


On Friday afternoon, Bernie Sanders blasted out an email to his millions-strong campaign list with a simple headline: "It looks like you like Keith."

In the aftermath of Hillary Clinton's defeat Tuesday night, Representative Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat who was the first Muslim-American elected to Congress and who cochairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, threw his name into the hat for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. Ellison was one of Sanders's only congressional endorsements, and Sanders returned the favor: less than twenty-four hours after Ellison announced he was running, more than 250,000 Bernie supporters were backing him.

After a grim few days, this signaled at least a nod toward the future for a Democratic Party that is presently in shambles. Republicans haven't so thoroughly dominated the country since the late twenties; they not only control the presidency, but also the Senate, the House of Representatives, two-thirds of governorships, and nearly two-thirds of partisan state legislative chambers in the country. In fact, Republicans are one state legislature away from claiming an unfettered ability to amend the Constitution; just for reference, the party's platform includes, among other things, calls for a "right-to-life" amendment and an economically disastrous "balanced-budget" amendment.

At every level, American liberalism has been decimated, even as Democrats won the popular vote in six out of the last seven presidential elections. That leaves an important question: What is the way forward for the progressive movement?

The answer is simple: the left needs to organize—in a political sense, an activist sense, and a literal sense—both against Trump and for a better future.

First, you have to look at what's working. Last week, Nevada flipped a Senate seat and two seats in the House of Representatives; this was largely due to the effects of unions. The Culinary Union Local 226 is around sixty thousand strong, and its field program was a huge boon for both Clinton and down-ballot candidates. Nevada political analyst Jon Ralston said in late October that the union's field organizers had knocked on more than 62,000 doors in Reno and 220,000 doors around Las Vegas.

Contrast this with Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker and the legislature rescinded the right to collective bargaining for public employees in 2011. Not only did Clinton become the first Democrat to lose Wisconsin since 1984, but progressive stalwart Russ Feingold lost his rematch to Senator Ron Johnson and Wisconsin Republicans increased their majorities in the legislature. This part of the country has gone redder as unions have declined; Democrats have to figure out how to bring these voters back into the fold.

The second way forward is activism. Arizona, for example, went for Trump, and voters reelected Republican senator John McCain. But they also approved a minimum wage increase, and Maricopa County voters dumped longtime sheriff Joe Arpaio, infamous for his department's racial profiling and immigration raids. The efforts of immigrant-rights activists and union members were instrumental in making this happen.

And in North Carolina, the Moral Monday movement and the protests that arose in the aftermath of HB 2 show that grassroots social justice activism will be essential. Groups like fast-food workers fighting for a $15 minimum wage, the NAACP, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights organizations, and graduate students fighting for a union have all put up a united front against the state's right-wing government.

Finally, there needs to be a renewed focus on economic justice, which is something that all of these groups can rally around. And that's where Ellison comes in. As head of the DNC, Ellison would be tasked with candidate recruitment, which would focus on fielding progressives with credible credentials who can tap into the same energy Sanders did during the primary.

Political sea changes have happened before—and quickly. After George W. Bush won reelection in 2004, there was talk of a permanent Republican majority; two years later, the Democrats reclaimed Congress. In 2008, President Obama's decisive reelection seemed to herald an era of Democratic rule; two years after that, the Republicans retook Congress on the strength of the tea party movement.

The tea party can be particularly instructive, if Democrats steal from its playbook and obstruct relentlessly, beginning with whomever Trump nominates to the Supreme Court. The Republicans, after all, decided on day one that they would not work with Obama at all, and their obstruction stopped a hell of a lot of momentum in its tracks. Given the dangers a Trump administration poses—and the congressional Republicans licking their lips at the prospect of dismantling the New Deal—Democrats should reciprocate in full measure.

Some lines simply cannot be crossed. Civil liberties, civil rights, Medicare, reproductive rights, the EPA, labor, public education—if Trump or Congress go after any of these things, those initiatives must be met with intense protest. Considering how scandal-ridden the Trump administration will likely be, as well as how fractured the Republicans in Congress are, progressives need to be ready to pounce.

Another lesson from the tea party is that it didn't just target Democrats. Tea partiers ruthlessly ate their own—any Republican who dared work with Obama. They waged primary campaigns against long-time congressmen and senators and won races the establishment never thought possible. This backfired at times—remember Christine "I'm not a witch" O'Donnell?—but six years later, the GOP's right wing is firmly in control of the party, and now the government.

Progressives need to focus on candidate recruitment for 2018 now, and not just the high-profile races. Conservatives built their movement over decades, from the ground up. This, too, is a model progressives should adopt: show up at city council and county party meetings. If you're unhappy with your local or state representatives, run. If you don't want to run, knock on doors. If your member of Congress is a weak-kneed centrist and you live in a progressive district, help recruit a primary opponent. As Sanders proved, as the tea party demonstrated over the last six years, and as Obama showed in 2007 and 2008, change does not happen by sitting on your hands.

For too long, liberals were content believing that changing demographics would win the day (and they probably will, eventually). So they didn't do the nitty-gritty required to build and sustain a movement. Now the Democratic Party's bench has been wiped out, and Democrats are starting this next cycle with an almost completely blank slate. It's essential to have voices that will push the party toward a message of real economic and social justice: raising the minimum wage, paid leave, comprehensive criminal justice reform, transportation and infrastructure upgrades, tuition-free college, and an aggressive plan to deal with climate change, for starters.

There are some positive signs. Our Revolution, the successor to the Sanders campaign, made endorsements not only at the federal level but also at the state and local levels. And the Ellison campaign immediately garnered an endorsement from the likely next Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat with strong ties to Wall Street, indicating that the backlash from the Sanders wing may have caught the attention of party leaders.

But make no mistake about it: this will be a long-term project, and given the unpredictability of Trump, progressives—and, really, every person of conscience—must stay vigilant and resist attacks on immigrants, people of color, Muslims, women, the poor, and the environment. Our survival depends on it.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Organize or Die."

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