Did the Wisconsin Protests Begin a Progressive Equivalent of the Tea Party?

Progressives got pretty excited when the Madison protests¬† broke out last winter. It seemed that the left was finally able to arouse the same kind of enthusiastic protest that had made the Tea Party so influential; perhaps this was the beginning of a move away from ultra-right politics. Now, about six months later and with some elections under our belt, let’s look at the similarities and differences between the two movements.

First, the Tea Party. In my opinion, the Tea Party rose so fast and became so influential because it had the following characteristics:

  • A good story to tell. Government was taking your hard-earned money and giving it to a) undeserving bankers, and b) undeserving poor people. See the famous Rick Santelli rant for a good example of this. Moreover, it was violating the Constitution and trampling on your rights, as characterized by the individual mandate in the health care law.
  • Greater commitment to principles than to partisanship. Sure, they were very partisan principles! But the Tea Party seemed never to back down for the purpose of winning a Republican victory. Their first big success was the special election in the New York 23d House district in 2009. The result was the loss of a Republican seat to the Democrats (who still hold it), but the Tea Party considered it a victory because they showed the Republican Party that it couldn’t win with moderates. Similarly their primary victories in the Colorado, Delaware, and Nevada Senate elections led to Democratic victories in November – but they didn’t care, they had established their power.
  • Substantial outside support. As Kate Zernike relates in her book Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America, staff of the right-libertarian PAC FreedomWorks saw the Santelli rant live and immediately started pouring resources into building the Tea Party. Similarly, Fox News effectively became the Tea Party’s media arm, publicizing it widely. Without these two sources of resources, the movement would not have grown the way it did.

How does the progressive movement compare?

  • Progressives have a good story as well: the American way of life is under attack from greedy rich people (sometimes personified in the Koch brothers), the ones who caused the crisis by selling fraudulent mortgage-backed securities.¬†We have to defend that way of life through strong government action.
  • Progressives have been willing to go after Democrats, as with the successful primary campaigns against Joe Lieberman (who was defeated in the Democratic primary but then won reelection as an independent) and Blanche Lincoln (who won the primary, narrowly, but lost the general election). However, they have not done this as much as the Tea Party has, out of a justified belief that they don’t want to undermine President Obama’s reelection, or the chance for a Democratic majority in the House. This is a dilemma the left has not resolved.
  • The main source of outside resources for progressives has been the labor movement. This was certainly the case in Wisconsin. However, more is needed, and the labor movement itself is under attack, and shrinking.

Conclusion: there is hope for a continuing progressive revival. The Wisconsin recalls were promising, though not conclusive, and the coming Ohio referendum will help to mobilize progressive voters further. But much more needs to be done.