Tea Party Lessons for the Left

Michael Tomasky
Tea Party Lessons for the Left

For two-and-a-half long—and believe me, they’ve been loooong—years now, people on the left have been wondering: How on earth is it that we were hit with the greatest financial crisis since the Depression, very obviously caused by deregulation and adherence to other conservative nostra, and yet the only protest movement to arise from these ashes is one ... of the right? It has been, to put it mildly, exasperating. But now comes Occupy Wall Street. Is the cosmic score about to be evened? Maybe. But paradoxically, only if this new left protest movement embraces some crucial lessons from the Tea Party movement—and if it outgrows certain impulses from 1968 that continue to loom large in the left’s imagination.

I want to stipulate up front that I am firmly on OWS’s side. I don’t really know who its leaders are, and I don’t especially care. I don’t know its exact goals—a subject on which the movement has been roundly, and in my view pointlessly, criticized. But it is desperately needed. It needs to succeed. And I fear it won’t. To succeed, it would have to model itself on 1963, not 1968. And I’m not confident that any left-wing protest movement today can understand that.

What do I mean? In 1963, we had the March on Washington. No one threw anything. There were no drum circles. The protesters of 1963 said to America, “We are like you; in fact, we are you.” There’s very little arguing that it worked. The protesters of 1968 said to America, “We are not like you; in fact, we hate you.” In France, the soixante-huitards were able, to some extent, to remake French society. In America, the protesters of ’68 accomplished little except to make Hubert Humphrey, one of the most decent human beings and progressive-minded mainstream politicians America had produced in 50 years, into some kind of reactionary, and help give us Nixon.

What changed, between 1963 and 1968? This: In 1963, protest was undertaken for the purpose of winning. By 1968, protest became a carnival of self-expression. Winning was the stated goal, but deep down, emotionally, it wasn’t really the goal: sticking it to the man was. Imagine that the SCLC-led protesters of 1963 had indulged in self-expression, and ask yourself whether they would have succeeded. I think I need say no more on that.

And this is where today’s protesters need to steal a page from the Tea Party activists. I beg, plead, implore, importune: Get some spokespeople out there for the cause who are just regular Americans. Don’t send Van Jones out there to be the public face of this movement. I happen to have a high opinion of Van Jones personally. He’s dedicated his life to justice in a higher-stakes way than I have. But any movement that is led by someone who was forced to resign from the White House and who signed a 9/11 truther petition will be dismissed by the mainstream media as left-wing and elitist in three seconds. You may like that or not like that, but it’s true.

The genius of the Tea Party movement lies entirely in the fact that its public faces were, by and large, regular Americans. How many stories did we all read about the homemaker from Wilkes-Barre and the IT guy from Dubuque who’d never been involved in politics in their lives and never thought they would be until the Tea Party came along? These people resonate with other Americans: “She’s my neighbor; he’s just like me.” That gave the Tea Party movement incredible force and made the media take it seriously, and making the media take you seriously is, alas, at least half the battle in our age.

The OWS movement is part of the way there. The “We Are the 99 Percent” trope is powerful. It is true. But the movement has to prove that it really is the 99 percent. It has to win middle America, and the way to win middle America is to be middle America. For all the Seattle-ish longhairs down in Zucotti Park—whom the mainstream media and the right wing will undoubtedly highlight—there are, to be sure, homemakers in Wilkes-Barre and IT guys in Dubuque who sympathize. Find them. Put them out there. Get them on cable.

And finally, don’t fight the man. Maybe in 1968 in Grant Park, the cops were pigs. Today, the cops aren’t pigs. They aren’t the man. They’re working stiffs, and they’re part of the 99 percent. They have underwater mortgages in Ronkonkoma and Orangeburg. Don’t make them arrest you. Make them part of the 99 percent. And don’t mess with traffic. That just pisses people off.

An execrable legacy of ’68 is the temptation to treat politics as a realm of self-expression. But it isn’t. Politics is where you go to get things done, to change things. Changing things means persuading those people sitting at home watching on TV. The bulk of those people have been persuaded that they don’t like government. But they also know that the system is rigged against them. Get them on your side. Be them. They’ll be with you, if you only invite them along.