It makes no difference whether you agree or disagree with the stated philosophies of the Tea Party — and, as a progressive, I abhor them all — you must acknowledge one unassailable fact: It is the most successful third party in American history, at least since the dawn of the 20th Century. The reason why the Tea Party has succeeded as a political force, where other third parties like the Green or Libertarian parties have failed, is because it operates within the existing political structure, in this case the Republican Party.
As a result, we now have on the American political scene, what amounts to three political parties: the Democratic Party, the Republican Party and the Tea Party. Admit it: Texas, to cite just one example, is not a Republican state, it’s a Tea Party State.
The Tea Party was founded by white supremists and isolationists, but gained its greatest success when big business and the monied elite realized the aims of the Tea Party coincided with their own and if the Tea Party succeeded in what they wanted from government, the rich would get richer and big business would hold even more power than it does today. They scoured the landscape, found individuals who not only agreed with their jingoism but were willing to espouse it publicly, financed their political fortunes and sent them out to spread their message in evangelical style. It attracted a fanatical following, which flocked to election booths and resulted in the so-called Republican landslide of 2014.
This wasn’t a case of Americans suddenly adhering to the Tea Party point of view. It was a case of a handful of fanatics who cared enough to vote while most of American stayed home because, unlike the Tea Party, it couldn’t find a set of ideals around which to rally. Just 36.4 percent of the voting age population bothered to vote in last year’s midterms. That’s the lowest percentage since 1942 when only 33.9 percent of voting-age Americans cast ballots and a lot of that drop off could be attributed to the fact that a significant number of those Americans were off somewhere fighting in a war.
I will argue that progressive ideals and programs — Social Security, Medicare, civil rights legislation, etc. — are what have made this country great. But for some reason, the progressive movement has fallen silent and its ideals have been co-opted by the mainstream Democratic Party. This is nothing new. The progressive movement had a major surge in the late 1960s through the mid-1970s and then it all went downhill and culminated in the nomination and election of Jimmy Carter for president and has continued through the presidencies of Bill Clinton and, unfortunately, Barack Obama. And now that Democrats seemed ready to anoint Hillary Clinton as its nominee for 2016, the prospects are more of the same. I can see the monied interests of Wall Street readily supporting a Clinton candidacy, but I can’t see grass-roots, middle-class, progressive thinking voters being overly excited about the prospect. And as much as I admire some of what I’ve heard from Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, she has yet to convince me she is the person to grab the banner of the progressive movement and lead followers to the barricades.
What is needed are new progressive voices within the framework of the Democratic Party, those unafraid to speak about issues that will drive those stay-at-homes-on-election-day to the polls, much in the same way the Tea Party has. Issues like gun safety, voting rights for all, sensible immigration reform, an individual’s right to make their own health care choices and to have the facilities available to them for those choices, an individual’s right to marry the person they love: programs based on loving thy neighbor instead of those based on distrusting them and, yes, even outright despising them.
Progressives should spend more time following the Tea Party’s blueprint for political takeover and less time criticizing it without offering an alternative ideals and candidates to excite and energize the American electorate.