Stop Comparing the Resistance to the Tea Party

Many people have chronicled the failures of major media outlets during the 2016 election. Perhaps the best documentation of that came from a report by the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard titled, ““Partisanship, Propaganda and Disinformation: Online Media and the 2016 Presidential Election.”

The roots of that failure began during the Obama administration when journalists committed to “both sides do it” failed to report on the asymmetric polarization that fueled Republican obstruction. Throughout those eight years there was an attempt to find Barack Obama to be equally at fault for gridlock and polarization, even as a lot of liberals critics found him to be too accommodating. The assumption of bothsiderism between the two political parties distorted the lens through which major media figures viewed what was happening and created a narrative that was at odds with the facts.

In many ways the presidency of Donald Trump has tested that narrative, even for those who clung to it so assiduously in the past. But I still see the remnants of bothsiderism in commentary that attempts to compare/contrast the current resistance movement to the Tea Party of 2010. Even in an effort to highlight the differences, Sahil Kapur falls prey to some of the underlying assumptions of bothsiderism.

During the first years of the Obama presidency, the Republican Party found itself out of power in Washington—and went to war with itself. Right-wing insurgents, mobilized under the Tea Party banner, brought out the knives against fellow Republicans deemed insufficiently conservative, particularly in party primaries and often with disastrous effect. Angry voters nominated a succession of hard-right candidates who took down more electable incumbents, inhibiting the party’s efforts to win back the Senate for six years even as it won control of the House in 2010.

Democrats, likewise shut out of power in the early years of the Trump presidency, face a similarly rebellious activist flank that risks pulling their party to an unelectable extreme by defeating Establishment-friendly candidates. But so far the left-wing “resistance” hasn’t sparked an intraparty civil war so much as a genteel coffee-table discussion. During the first big wave of primaries this month, Democratic centrists did something their GOP counterparts often couldn’t during the Obama years: They survived. Instead of nominating radical outsiders, voters mostly went with moderate incumbents. Putting off any significant discussion about what the party truly stands for is just fine for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who on May 8 said at an event in Washington, “Just win baby.”

Let’s first of all note that the first big wave of primaries this month all happened in states that Trump won. Similarly, the special elections that have occurred since the 2016 election have almost exclusively been held in red states and districts. It therefore stands to reason that moderate Democratic candidates have done well. As the primaries move to more predominantly blue states and districts, we are likely to see candidates prevail who embrace more liberal platforms.

But the biggest problem with Kapur’s analysis is to equate the resistance movement with the “rebellious activist flank” in opposition to “establishment-friendly candidates.” To make that point, he notes that in the Democratic primary for the Ohio governor’s race, Dennis Kucinich—who was endorsed by Bernie Sanders’ organization Our Revolution—lost to Richard Cordray by over 40 points. That assumes that the resistance movement is made up of Sanders supporters who are lining up to do battle with the establishment.

I would remind you of how Theda Skocpol and Lara Putnam described the white suburban women who are organizing as a major player in the resistance.

This is not a leftist Tea Party, because newly engaged suburban activists hail from across the broad ideological range from center to left. It’s not a Sanders versus Clinton redux, because that “last year’s news” divide is flatly irrelevant to the people working shoulder-to-shoulder in the present. It’s not an Occupy Wall Street-type questioning of liberal democracy, because these activists believe laws can make good government as strong and transparent as possible. It’s not the 1960s, with young people leading the way—although there are lots of helpful teenagers in the background saying, “Mom, it’s fine: go to your meeting; I’ll get dinner myself.”

Skocpol and Putnam also point out that the overriding principle among these women is pragmatism on issues like health care reform (primarily rejecting Republican attempts to repeal Obamacare), gerrymandering, education, climate change and immigration. The resistance movement is also made up of diverse groups that share those concerns and are also organizing on issues like voter protection and criminal justice reform.

Lately the resistance movement has been joined by young people following the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School. Their demands include gun safety measures that are overwhelmingly embraced by voters, like universal background checks for gun purchases. Rather than posing a challenge to establishment Democrats, all of these groups are ramping up to fight for issues Democrats have embraced for decades.

In the end, Kapur identifies the qualifying difference between the resistance and the Tea Party movements.

By contrast, the Tea Party was less about policy and more about capitalizing on cultural resentment among older white voters…In the end, the true power of the Tea Party was in channeling voters’ revulsion to demographic diversity, a phenomenon embodied in the election of the first black president. “The Tea Party movement became effective because they were able to vilify President Obama and tag every Democrat to him,” says Mike Caputo, Democratic minority whip in the West Virginia House of Delegates. “If you were running for dog catcher, they would do a mailer telling about how you and Obama used to have lunch together.”

It was that attempt to vilify Obama that Republican leaders used as fuel for their obstructionism and lack of any real policy agenda. Other than tax cuts for the wealthy, we still see that they have no agenda other than fanning the flames of division and hate. That is why John Harwood nailed it:

The resistance movement has an agenda that goes well beyond the desire to defeat Donald Trump and Republicans. When it comes to domestic issues, in many ways it embraces the unfinished policy agenda of the Obama administration and includes things like:

  • continue progress towards universal health insurance
  • raise the minimum wage
  • infrastructure
  • expand child care
  • paid family and sick leave
  • make college more affordable
  • common sense gun safety laws
  • criminal justice reform
  • comprehensive immigration reform

It is true that when it comes to many of these issues, the challenge Democrats face is the plethora of ideas to chose from in order to accomplish their goals. I would suggest that, when it comes to democracy, that diversity of ideas is a feature, not a bug. It is also the opposite of what the Tea Party was all about.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.