Why Democrats Need A Tea Party—And Why They Can’t Have One

Think back to the olden days of the Obama presidency. Hope and change were in the air, the Democrats had control of the House and Senate—the progressive possibilities were theoretically endless. America got the Affordable Care Act and, well, from a legislative standpoint, that’s about as far as the Democrats could get before they lost their majority in Congress. The Tea Party came marching in under the Republican umbrella, and much like a neglected kettle, they did so piping hot and very, very loudly.

Say what you will about the Republican Party’s social policies—not now, we haven’t the time—but you must agree that their claim on fiscal policy is firmly set. I’m not saying they have good fiscal policies, or that they genuinely care about overspending, but they make a good show of at least pretending that they care. The Tea Party came in and, say what you will about their racial motivations—though, again, we haven’t the time—they put Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, at serious jeopardy of repeal because, they argued, its cost was unsustainable and would balloon the national deficit. The Tea Party cared primarily about spending; about cutting spending, specifically—about repealing the ACA, more specifically, because of its cost. When the Republican Party wasn’t busy investigating Secretary Clinton for the billionth time, Tea Party members were again trying to repeal the ACA.

The Tea Party succeeded because they took the Republican Party back to its roots. Again, forgetting the socio-religious motivations behind certain domestic and international policy preferences, their main message consisted of small government, cutting the deficit, and sticking with an originalist interpretation of the Constitution. Republicans generally have these goals, too, but they also make a bigger show of America’s role in the international stage and are more explicit about their social aims, i.e. abortion, LGBTQ rights, paid family leave, etc.

What does a focused Democratic Party look like? If the Democrats’ Tea Party counterpart is to be analogous to the Republicans’, it must be similarly focused on a select number of causes that, for the most part, won’t offend the sensibilities of the general American public. At their core, the Democratic Party stands for worker rights and worker protection. A Democratic Tea Party would run on a platform of increasing the federal minimum wage, say to $15/hour; increasing protections for unions to even the hand between worker and corporate disputes; increase the length of time for paid family leave, and maybe extending that benefit to men; and lastly, advocating for equal pay for equal work.

Why should the Democratic Tea Party focus on these goals? For one, none of these planks explicitly tie or suggest that the national debt will increase, at least not in the way Healthcare-for-All does or free tuition for public universities. None of these objectives invite divisive social viewpoints, like abortion or welfare expansion—which also calls to mind the national deficit. Lastly, these stated goals have a greater potential for poaching Republican voters, for the same reason that Michael Jordan said, or maybe didn’t say, that “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Republicans work, too. Joe Sixpack is ripe for the poaching, as is the humble blue-collar, red-blooded American because if there’s one thing that Trump’s election and recently-elapsed midterm elections should definitively teach Democrats—after the Tea Party came in and kicked their majority out of Congress back in 2010—it’s that the economy still matters.

Like it or not, the economy—jobs—is the one thing that most men and women of all races and sexual orientations are affected by, on a daily basis. Again, say what you will about microaggressions, gender bias, or sexual discrimination, but underlying these issues is something much more fundamental: Do you have a job, and does it provide an adequate living. We can say that it’s a shame to say, but basic job security, worker rights, worker protections, these things matter more to more Americans than government-paid surgery for trans soldiers; it matters more than the latest debate on how gender is socially constructed; it’s less divisive than our role in tackling climate change; and much less polarizing than the policies currently advocated for now (Healthcare-for-All, free tuition, expansion of the social safety net) among what potentially is the Democrats’ Tea Party: Progressives.

Notice that I haven’t made a judgment on Progressive policies. I’ve compared their feasibility with a purely economic message focused solely on worker rights and protections, but I haven’t discussed their viability as alternatives to what we currently have. I just have a hard time believing that those are the policies that Americans will find palatable, and that potentially-poachable Republicans would flip their vote for, in the next election. If anything, the results of the last five elections, including the midterms, tells me that America is not ready or willing to pursue these policies, not on a national scale. Democrats have big goals, there’s no doubting that. But they need to begin small.

And in today’s polarized politics, it’s not just that both sides are getting stretched further from each other. When it comes to the Democratic Party, having this narrow and focused a set of objectives is no longer fashionable. This is why Democrats will continue to bang their heads against voters’ doors, like brutes, trying to convince them that they should care more about other people, even when their personal finances aren’t the party’s first priority. Money talks, they say, and voting with your wallet is an effective way of changing the behavior of corporations? Why doesn’t the Democratic Party also realize that money matters to voters?

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