Democrats have been warned many times not to allow the creation of a “tea party of the left,” by which it’s usually meant a band of doctrinaire ideologues so committed to purity that they’ll punish reasonable elected officials, pull their party to extreme positions, and make it harder for them to win elections. But even with Congress now being overrun by new young, progressive members, particularly high-profile women of color, it’s not as much of a risk as some fear.
But fear they will. One of the most visible ways tea partyization can occur is through the use of primary campaigns targeting centrist members of Congress, which is why there will likely be some hand-wringing about this news:
A grass-roots Democratic group that helped power the upset victory of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has identified a Texas Democrat as its first target ahead of the 2020 congressional primaries — but as of now, Ocasio-Cortez herself is staying neutral.
Justice Democrats, a political committee founded after the 2016 election to reshape the Democratic Party through primary challenges, is working to recruit a challenger to Rep. Henry Cuellar, a seven-term congressman from a strongly Democratic district who’s one of the few anti-abortion-rights voices in the party’s House conference.
In a statement, the group compared Texas’s 28th Congressional District, which gave the president just 38.5 percent of the vote in 2016, to other districts where left-leaning candidates have unseated incumbents. It is launching a “primary Cuellar fund” to encourage any potential candidate that there will be resources if he or she jumps into the race.
It’s no surprise that Cuellar was the one they chose to start with, since not only is he by some measures the most conservative Democrat in the House (see here, here, or here), but he represents a district that Hillary Clinton won in 2016 by 20 points. He’s exactly the kind of person liberals should want to primary. I’ll bet that groups like Justice Democrats will leave a member such as Conor Lamb alone, since although Lamb is a centrist, too, he represents a Pennsylvania district that Trump won by 20 points. Even those on the far left are smart enough to know that there are some places where the sitting member is the best Democrats can do, even if they’re more conservative than one might like.
But with the enormous amount of attention given to the new crop of members such as Ocasio-Cortez, it’s fair to ask whether the pressure they’re exerting to move the party left is a good idea. The answer, I think, is that for every minor faux-controversy they might bring there are enormous benefits to the evolution of the party that’s underway.
First off, let’s be sure we understand what the actual effects of the tea party were. It certainly did, and still does, make a lot of sensible Republicans uncomfortable, not so much because of its ideological extremism but because of its tactical extremism. Tea party members came to Washington from 2010 to 2014 with a “burn it all down” attitude, in which chaos and destruction — and things like government shutdowns and threats to default on the United States' debt — were not aberrations but the core of the strategy.
But for all the drama they caused and the ugliness they brought with them (such as the sea of racist venom they poured on President Barack Obama), they didn’t hurt the Republican Party much at all, at least in the short to medium run. Republicans took back the House in 2010 and took back the Senate in 2014. They won the White House in 2016 with a candidate who is tea party in all but ideology, a birther himself who has now shut down the government.
The long run will probably be a different story, particularly since the tea party made it harder for the GOP to expand its electorate beyond an aging and shrinking portion of the population. You can also argue that when they took over the party, they banished any remaining trace of policy seriousness, which made it impossible, for instance, for them to come up with an alternative to the Affordable Care Act.
Nevertheless, there are a lot of Democrats who would be quite happy if their new generation of progressive members had the same effect on their party that the tea party had on Republicans. But there are reasons to think that those members will actually have an almost entirely positive impact.
The first is that unlike the white guys who made up the tea party, the Democrats who just came to Washington represent not only the Democratic Party coalition as it exists today, but also the coalition that is most likely to allow it to prosper in the future. America grows more diverse by the day, and the Democrats now represent that diversity, a coalition of all colors and faiths with women taking many of the leadership roles. Republicans, on the other hand, more than ever are represented by white men. Incredibly, there are only 13 women out of the 199 Republican members in the new House.
Secondly, the things the progressive Democrats are pushing for — action on climate change, a higher minimum wage, universal health coverage — are all quite popular. That doesn't mean there won't be vigorous debates about them, but despite Republican cries of "Egad, socialism!", their agenda strikes most Americans as pretty reasonable.
There are always going to be intraparty conflicts, and there will be some casualties as those conflicts play out. Given what his district looks like, Cuellar is probably going to be one of them. But Democrats don’t need to worry that they’re going to be torn apart from the inside. And as for those centrists who look on in horror at a new generation of elected liberals? If that’s their reaction, they probably are on their way out. I’ll let Ocasio-Cortez’s reaction to criticism from Joe Lieberman (remember him?) sum it up: