Why shouldn’t the Left have its own “tea party”?

As the progressive wing of the Democratic Party threatened to derail the cromnibus in order stop further weakening of campaign finance and Wall Street regulations, it became fashionable in some circles to call Elizabeth Warren and her ilk the “Ted Cruz” or “Tea Party of the left.” This phrase and similar ones are usually said with a sneer, as if the danger and stupidity of a such a thing were obvious on its face.

But is it? The problem with the hyperconservative Tea Party wing of the Republican Party isn’t its tactics, but rather its policies. Washington establishment and cocktail party circuit types love to focus on process and tone rather than on policy. The Tea Party is bad, we’re supposed to believe, because they say mean things, or because they play hardball in their negotiating, or because they’re willing to engage in histrionics just to a make a point, or because they’re willing to primary longtime members for the sake of ideological purity.

But there’s nothing wrong with any of this. It’s good politics. We say we want legislators to go to Washington to fight for their beliefs, but then decry them when they do.

More importantly, the establishment centrists have clearly failed the country. The public has never had less faith in social or government institutions than it does today. Every other month seems to produce some new moral or institutional crisis demonstrating the failure of American elites to police their own. Wages refuse to go up no matter what happens with the rest of the economy, and the middle class is shrinking and unstable. The only utterly indefensible position is that major changes aren’t necessary, and that due respect for the mores of the Washington elite should trump blunt talk and sharp moves away from the status quo.

The Tea Party understands this. It taps into a simmering anti-elitist rage on the Right, exploits it and stands firm to its convictions. There’s not only nothing wrong with that–it’s admirable. That’s not the problem with the Tea Party.

The problem with the Tea Party is that the things it stands for are almost universally immoral, and its policy prescriptions are disastrous. The Tea Party isn’t an extremist group because of its tactics, but rather its legislative aims.

Threatening to shut down the government isn’t necessarily a terrible thing; threatening it in order to deny people healthcare is. Primarying a leader isn’t necessarily a bad thing; doing so because he didn’t do enough to break up families and deport people is. Breaking up longtime legislative deals can be a good thing from time to time, but not if it’s done to take away food assistance to the poor. And so on. The issue is one of policy, not of process. Even on process, though, the Tea Party manages to get its way, continually forcing policy decisions to move farther and farther to the right. The centrists who tut-tut the Tea Party’s tactics aren’t just wrong on the merits. They’re also getting outmaneuvered.

So why, exactly, shouldn’t the progressive wing have its own response? One that promotes policies that are not only objectively wiser and proven right, but are also politically popular per public polling? The American people want comprehensive immigration reform. They want to reduce both wealth and income inequality. If the deficit must be reduced (and it’s not entirely clear that it must be), they want it reduced by taxing the obscenely wealthy. They want Wall Street curbed, and to break up banks that are too big to fail. They want to take action on climate change and move faster toward renewable energy. They want cheaper healthcare. They want more privacy protections, and fewer military interventions overseas.

And it just so happens that our best available evidence from social, environmental and economic science suggests that the American public is right about all these things.

So why shouldn’t there be a coalition in Washington that stands up for them? Why shouldn’t there be a group that threatens to primary leaders, play hardball with budget negotiations and upend longstanding traditions to achieve those legislative goals? What could possibly be wrong with that, when done in the service of the right policies? We already know from experience with the Tea Party that such an approach can be successful in defeating the centrists from a tactical standpoint.

The greatest error would be to join with the failed establishment types who treasure process over policy in protecting their social conventions. Change is needed. It’s just a question of what kind of change we’re going to get.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.