Progressives Learn From Tea Party
Democrats have a tough time getting into the trenches. This has been clear from the beginning of the Obama era, when the Tea Party was able to thwart a number of progressive policy initiatives, despite being a political minority. It became frustratingly apparent when Senate Republicans successfully blocked federal Justice Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court for an unprecedented 293 days.
Facing partisan impediments at nearly every turn over the past eight years, congressional Democrats chose to take the high road. They chose to place their faith in the system, believing that if only they could weather the storm, the ship would right itself, and the Republican Party would be exposed and punished for their unyielding obstructionism.
The Democrats were wrong. Sure, progressives faced down Republican obstruction and came out with the moral high ground, but from a pragmatic standpoint, that hasn’t earned Democrats much. Garland is not sitting on the Supreme Court and his spot is likely to be filled by another ultra–conservative justice in the mold of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. And Republicans control not only the White House, but both houses of Congress as well.
After November’s elections, progressives across the country knew that they would be facing serious political adversity at both a national and local level. Outside of Washington, Republicans control 33 governor’s houses and 32 state legislatures. Across the country, Democrats cannot currently propose and enact policy in any substantial, meaningful way. Instead, they must play defense, focusing their efforts on fighting dangerous and unconstitutional actions in much the same way the conservatives once fought the Obama agenda.
Many pockets of resistance are inspired by the Indivisible Guide, a now 26–page document originally released in December by former progressive congressional staffers. The guide outlines methods of fighting the Trump agenda. Since the guide’s release, Indivisible groups have sprung up in every congressional district, and they currently number more than 5,000 nationwide. There are two Indivisible groups in Oberlin alone — one affiliated with the College and one with the greater community.
The Indivisible strategy is simple: Obstruct President Donald Trump’s agenda in much the same way that the Tea Party, and later the Republican Party, were able to slow or stop key progressive initiatives during the Obama years.
According to the guide’s authors, the Tea Party’s success was based on two strategies. First, they were purely defensive, focused on saying “no” to Obama’s agenda rather than presenting policies of their own. Second, they acted locally, targeting elected officials at events in their home states.
In these ways, Indivisible is inspired by the Tea Party, although the authors make the difference between the two groups clear: according to the guide, Indivisible is grounded in facts, and people in opposition to Trump comprise the majority of the country, while alliance to the Tea Party was a minority position nationally.
For many progressives, the tactical shift from focusing on maintaining the moral high ground to concentrating on obstructing regressive policy changes is a welcome one. Democrats spent a lot of time following the rules over the past eight years, and that idealism has been costly.
However, after coming out on the losing side of the 2016 election despite having faith that the American people would punish Republicans for their obstructionism, Democrats are finally realizing that the old rules of bipartisan cooperation don’t work the same way they used to.
Due to the work of groups like Indivisible, progressives — even those in conservative districts — are seeing the beginnings of tangible breakthroughs. Confirmation votes for Trump’s cabinet appointees were among the most contentious in history. Progressives nearly blocked Betsy DeVos’ nomination as education secretary due to a flurry of furious phone–banking. Angry constituents also let their representatives know that they oppose a straight repeal of the Affordable Care Act, pushing Republican legislators to be more cautious with the issue. On a local level, protesters held congresspeoples’ feet to the fire last week at town halls across the country, including right here in Ohio’s Fourth District.
Nobody enjoys partisan gridlock. But the current political reality in the U.S. is that obstruction works. Voters rewarded Republicans for it. Democrats refused to face that reality and now face opposition from the White House, Congress and state legislatures across the country.
For Democrats, there is a silver lining, however: Through groups like Indivisible, progressives are finally learning how to fight back.