Responding to the frustration progressive activists feel toward the political power and media attention garnered by the Tea Party movement, former Obama official Van Jones has teamed up with MoveOn.org to launch what they are calling The American Dream Movement. The media is calling it a "left-wing" or "liberal" version of the Tea Party.
The undertaking already has many conservatives scoffing. Conservative blogging giant Glenn Reynolds sarcastically noted, for instance, how many failed attempts there have already been by progressives to start a "liberal version" of the Tea Party, writing:
"Can Liberals Start Their Own Tea Party? Well, we’ve had the Coffee Party, the Brownbaggers, The Other 95%, A New Way Forward, the One Nation Movement — am I leaving any out? I can’t remember — and none of them has gone much beyond a spot of initial positive coverage from the NYT. So, probably not."
Why have all these past attempts failed?
For one, I would argue that they are too contrived, too planned, and too organized from the top down. Contrary to what half of MSNBC's evening line up would have you believe, the Tea Party movement really is a spontaneous, grassroots phenomenon. No Republican or conservative political activist sat in a room with colleagues planning out a new political movement that would be called the Tea Party. No central organization planned or directed the hundreds of local and autonomous Tea Party protests that happened in cities and towns across the country in 2009. They just happened.
Statists on "the Left" may have a fundamental problem in their thinking that prevents such spontaneous organization and activity. Central to their political worldview is the notion that central planning from above is necessary to facilitate positive social change, or "progress" as they like to style it. If they were able to pull together and truly emulate the Tea Party by means of a totally spontaneous, voluntary, citizen and locally-driven, grassroots movement, they will have ironically disproved or at least substantially weakened a central axiom of their own political philosophy.
But there is one way that a "left-wing" version of the Tea Party could succeed. The Washington Post asked this week, "Can liberals start their own tea party?" and the answer is, "Yes, but only if they are as sincere as the original Tea Party in disavowing partisan politics and business as usual in Washington." The original Tea Party was and continues to be so successful because it has been as much of a rebuke of George W. Bush as it has been of Barack Obama, even making that critical and seemingly-obvious connection, which nevertheless eludes committed partisans: that Presidents Bush and Obama are substantively identical in nearly every way.
After eight years of collective Republican insanity, with President Bush aggressively betraying every single one of traditional conservatism's self-proclaimed values in pursuit of a vision of empire and global hegemony entirely alien to traditional conservatism, the Tea Party has dramatically refocused the Republican Party's priorities on the rule of law, restricting executive power, championing greater transparency, opposing subsidies and bailouts that reward well-connected and powerful corporations, spending responsibly, and even protecting civil liberties. It's telling that because of the Tea Party, Republicans like Rand Paul are now among the most vocal opponents of the Patriot Act and Obama's undeclared war in Libya.
A "left-wing" Tea Party could not succeed by attempting to unite and energize that shrinking portion of American voters who actually want to see an increase in the size, role, and influence of a government that most Americans believe is malfeasant, bloated, corrupt, and broke. If a "liberal" version of the Tea Party is to succeed, it must adopt the original Tea Party's implicit battle-cry: "We want less! We want less!" It must refocus Democratic priorities on less open-ended warfare like Obama's continued campaign in Afghanistan and arguably illegal war in Libya. It must focus on fewer assaults on our civil liberties like the Patriot Act, so carefully shepherded through the U.S. Senate by Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, and opposed single-handedly by a Republican, Rand Paul. It must focus on less executive power and no more violations of the Constitution.
Like the first modern Tea Party movement, a "liberal" version should hearken back to the Founding Fathers, calling the Democratic Party back to the principles embodied by its early leaders like Thomas Jefferson, who fought so boldly for civil liberties and the rule of law, and Andrew Jackson, who literally risked his life opposing the power of corrupt central bankers and their manipulation of the economy for the benefit of wealthy special interests.
Unless Democrats move in this direction and chastise their own leadership for abandoning their principles, they will fail. But perhaps that's why no such thing as a "left-wing" Tea Party has yet emerged with any amount of influence or credibility, because if all of these things are what progressives mean when they call for a "left-wing Tea Party," such a movement already exists. It's called the Tea Party.