Can liberals start their own tea party?
At last weekend’s Netroots Nation gathering in Minneapolis, liberal activists expressed frustration that they lacked the political power or media focus given to the conservative tea-party movement. Former White House environmental official Van Jones is hoping to change that with a new political effort dubbed “The American Dream Movement.”
Organizers are hoping to emulate the the success of the tea party, which became a significant force in the 2010 midterms, uniting like-minded people across the country who were previously uninvolved in politics or participating locally but not at the national level.
They hope to motivate unemployed veterans, struggling homeowners and other alienated Americans who are angry at Republicans’ desire to drastically cut government spending in Washington and collective bargaining rights for state employees in places like Wisconsin. And to lure those people simply struggling to find a job while worried about their unemployment benefits ending.
“We think we can do what the tea party did,” Jones said in an interview with The Fix. “They stepped forward under a common banner, and everybody took them seriously. Polls suggest there are more people out there who have a different view of the economy, but who have not stepped forward yet under a common banner.”
Jones is a former Obama environmental adviser who resigned from the White House in 2009 amid controversy over his past activism. But he’s lauded in liberal circles for his charisma and organizing abilities.
“There's a lot of organizational muscle behind the initiative, and Van is one of the most inspiring figures in the progressive movement, so I'm looking forward to these efforts, and they certainly come at a time when Republican overreach has primed progressives to take action” said Markos Moulitas, the founder of the liberal blog network Daily Kos.
Jones’ “Dream” movement will launch Thursday night with a rally in New York City. The Roots are performing; MoveOn.org, a well known liberal advocacy group, is co-sponsoring the gathering.
After the rally, the group will hold house meetings around the country in a bid to crowd-source the group’s platform, asking for ideas and collecting input from economists and activists. It will then use those contributions to form a “Contract for the American Dream” that will serve as an agenda to rally support and pressure politicians in Washington, riffing off the 1994 “Contract with America” that swept Republicans into the House majority.
While the tea-party movement gained clout in part through successful primary challenges to establishment politicians in 2010, Jones said the “Dream” movement is not “about primaries.”
However, should their efforts succeed, MoveOn.org’s executive director Justin Ruben says that the movement will push back against Democrats who don’t adhere to its goals.
Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean argued that the idea of an interactive “Contract” is an improvement on the tea-party methods.
“The tea party has got technical dominance in their ability to put together a leaderless group that is in the political cloud, so to speak, and what [Jones] does is take the next step after that.”
There is some reason to believe that it’s the right time for a progressive movement modeled on the tea party. Some of the GOP actions taken since capturing control of the House majority in 2010 appear unpopular with voters, including passage of Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget plan, which would turn Medicare into a voucher program by 2022.
Washington Post polling shows that voters don’t want cuts to entitlement spending. A majority of Americans think spending cuts and tax increases should both be part of any deficit-reduction plan, while Republicans have opposed any tax increases.
Jones predicted that the public winds were shifting against drastic government spending cuts like the ones enacted by new Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), who moved this spring to end collective bargaining rights for most state employees.
Thousands have also protested similar moves in Indiana., Ohio and New York, and smaller protests have occurred all across the country. In a general sign that people are fed up with the economy, some activists have banded together under the term ‘99ers,’ to stand up for the rights of people who have been unemployed so long, their government benefits have run out.
As for the “American Dream” movement specifically, the unifying theme is disaffection with the economy and with the debate in Washington over how to fix it. Specifics are lacking at this point, as Jones plans to solicit activist input. One plank advanced by Jones is the idea of a transactional tax that would slap a levy on the sale or transfer of stocks, bonds and other financial assets.
This isn’t the first attempt at a “liberal tea party.” A coalition of liberal and civil-rights groups united under the “One Nation” banner last year and held a rally on the National Mall in October. After the election, the group — in which Van Jones was involved — fizzled.
Unlike One Nation, in which long-standing liberal groups agreed to collaborate, Jones’ movement is hoping to attract people who are ideologically aligned but not politically active. Those people will define their own goals. But Jones is also in conversations with many of the labor and civil-rights groups that were involved in the One Nation effort. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka recorded a web video for the campaign.
Institutional involvement does not go against the tea-party model. The tea-party movement has its own benefactors — Americans for Prosperity, Our Country Deserves Better PAC, and other groups backed by longtime Republican donors and strategists. Those groups capitalized on disparate protest movements around the country, many of whom say they have no connection to the political battles fought in their name.
Still, it will likely be hard to get liberals and supporters of more progressive economic policy to rally in the same way. Tea-party activists tend to be wealthy and well-educated; Jones is hoping to reach unemployed veterans, struggling homeowners, and other groups who likely have less time to organize and grow more politically active,
A year from now, will the “American Dream Movement” be on everyone’s lips the way the tea party is? It seems unlikely. But it’s a sign that liberals are making a more concerted effort to organize outside groups in ways that don’t rely on the power or personality of President Obama.