In the nearly two months since President Donald Trump was sworn in, a self-described “Resistance” has emerged at mass marches, energetic protests and raucous town halls from coast to coast. The town halls in particular have invited a substantial amount of speculation: Will the Resistance become the left’s counterpart to the right-wing Tea Party?
It’s not hard to imagine why Democrats might welcome a populist movement of their own, given the successes the GOP has enjoyed since the Tea Party took shape in 2009. Over eight years, the movement helped Republicans gain majorities in state legislatures, win both houses of Congress and lay the groundwork for Trump’s ascent to the White House.
If the Republican and Democratic parties become dominated by angry, dogmatic populist movements, the political center will die, with horrific consequences for our democratic system and even our ability to hold together as a nation.
In many respects, the Tea Party was an admirable example of democracy in action and gave many citizens their first experience with political engagement. But as a whole, the Tea Party became the extremist tail that wagged the Republican Party dog.
Participants in the movement tended toward ideological rigidity and absolutist demands, bringing to the fore far-right ideas that had long been resisted by principled conservatives. Paranoid conspiracy theories once peddled by the likes of the John Birch Society became commonplace, with President Barack Obama portrayed as a foreign-born dictator ravaging the Constitution, rather than simply a Democratic president with whom we respectfully disagreed.
The entire GOP was pushed toward obstruction and hyperpartisanship. Expertise and experience became liabilities, compromise the deadliest sin. The Tea Party claimed the mantle of fiscal conservatism, but had no real strategy to reduce the deficit beyond cutting programs for Democratic constituencies while preserving programs for Republican voters, all while avoiding any serious reforms to defense spending or middle-class entitlements. (If you think that sounds a lot like Trump’s proposed budget, you’re right.)
In Congress, the Tea Party gave rise to the House Freedom Caucus, which devoted most of its energies to overthrowing its own party’s leaders and undermining the legislative branch as an institution. The activists’ populist fervor and disdain for negotiation led directly to the 2013 government shutdown, as hard-liners in Congress attempted to force concessions from the administration that they couldn’t achieve through the legislative process.
Perhaps more troublingly, the Tea Party weakened the Republicans’ capacity to govern. The constant threat of primary challenges intimidated GOP legislators into taking extreme ideological positions that had no basis in reality or the needs of their constituents. Problem-solvers were marginalized or purged.
Terrible threats to the country—the opioid epidemic, rising income inequality, the collapse of work, stagnating social mobility, terrorism and global instability—were ignored while Congress passed base-pleasing motions that the president predictably vetoed.
The hour is too late for more of this pointless and irresponsible Kabuki theater. And yet many Democrats seem eager to stage a drama of their own, following exactly the same script.
But for now, the Resistance seems to be not only retracing the Tea Party’s trajectory, but adopting its techniques.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in their tactic of showing up, organized and en masse, to town-hall meetings held by elected officials from the opposing party. Sometimes those meetings take the form of constructive dialogues, while at other times they’re more akin to Maoist-style denunciations. Where will this lead, given the left’s growing appetite for violent suppression of free speech, as seen in places like Middlebury College?
For now, many Resistance participants, like the Tea Party’s novice activists before them, are following the conventional track of citizen engagement by building a more formal organized structure, holding meetings, writing to and calling their representatives, and running for unglamorous but critical jobs as convention delegates and precinct chairs in the Democratic Party.
That’s not to say that the Resistance and the Democratic Party are working in tandem. Indeed, what’s happening carries real risks for the Democrats: In yet another parallel with the Tea Party, the Resistance is fighting against its own party’s leaders as well as the opposing party.
We saw this in the replay of the Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton 2016 primary spat in this year’s race for chair of the Democratic National Committee, with Keith Ellison playing the role of Sanders and Tom Perez standing in for Hillary Clinton.
Just as the Tea Party pushed the GOP toward obstructionism and ideological rigidity, the Resistance is starting to force the Democratic Party toward its extremes and away from long-held norms of bipartisan give-and-take. Resisters threaten Democratic politicians with terrible retribution if they vote in favor of any of Trump’s nominees or major Republican legislation, regardless of merit. As a result, Democratic officeholders have less and less to say about the value of compromise, seemingly fearing that anything they say will be seen as “normalizing” and “legitimizing” the Trump presidency.
Odds are growing that 2018 will see a rash of Resistance-driven primary challenges to centrist Democrats. Privately, the party’s professionals dread a repeat of what has happened on the Republican side, when successful center-leaning politicians lost low-turnout primaries to fringe candidates who went on to crashing defeat in the general election.
(Think of Indiana Senator Richard Lugar losing the 2012 primary to Richard Mourdock, who then went on to lose to Democrat Joe Donnelly.) It’s not hard to imagine an Elizabeth Warren-style challenger upsetting Sen. Joe Manchin in the West Virginia Democratic primary in 2018, but that liberal victor would face long odds in a state where Trump took nearly 70 percent of the vote in 2016.
The impulse to primary moderates from your own party is real and has a certain appeal, but those victories are often Pyrrhic, forfeiting long-term success for short-lasting gratification.
At the moment, Democrats are so far down in the minority in both the House and Senate that many grass-roots activists would welcome whatever Faustian trade-offs would accompany a liberal Tea Party. It’s uncertain, however, whether the Resistance can succeed on the scale of the Tea Party-driven Republican victories in the past several elections, for reasons that have a lot to do with America’s political geography.
The Tea Party movement prevailed because it targeted vulnerable Democratic officeholders in areas that already leaned conservative. After the 2010 elections, membership in the congressional Blue Dog Coalition, made up mostly of centrist Democrats from Sunbelt states, dropped by half; after 2012, it halved again.
Rural and heartland America accounted for most of the nearly 1,000 state legislative seats, 30 state legislative chambers and dozen governorships the Democrats have lost since Obama took office. It’s possible that Democrats might try to retake the Blue Dogs’ old territory in 2018 and 2020, but the centrist Democratic candidates who could succeed in those districts will not run if the national party moves sharply to the left and the Resistance emulates the Tea Party’s animus toward moderates.
Far more likely is that Democrats will concentrate most of their efforts against comparatively moderate, governing-minded Republicans in purple states and swing districts, just as they did in 2016.
Quite a few of the Republicans who represent politically diverse states and highly educated suburban districts are likely to go down in flames if Trump’s ratings continue to decline.
But these are also the last remaining Republicans who might be counted on to cooperate with the opposing party, hold the executive branch accountable and keep the GOP from overreaching on issues ranging from the Affordable Care Act to tax reform.
If they’re forced out, the Republican Party will become even more extreme, and our governing system will become even more dysfunctional.
If the Resistance is legitimately troubled by President Trump and his implications for American democracy, they could do something more constructive and creative—and a successful model for it already exists.
Each election cycle in the early 1970s, the environmental movement targeted a “dirty dozen” of the worst polluters in Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, and defeated most of them.
It’s not impossible to imagine a movement today that would seek to remove the members who are doing the greatest damage to Congress and effective governance. Such a campaign would do a lot more good for the country than the current dynamic, in which moderates from both parties are locked in a death struggle while extremists go unchallenged in safe seats.
But I’m afraid that’s unlikely to happen. Scratch the assumptions of many Tea Party and Resistance participants and you’re likely to find a belief that nothing good can be accomplished in politics unless the correct side controls all branches of government and can run roughshod over its opponents.
Many Republicans are now rejoicing as Trump and Congress work to repeal every part of Obama’s legacy and force their agenda on Blue America, while many Democrats dream of someday reversing every Republican action and imposing their own maximalist program on Red America.
What both sides overlook is that the only enduring causes in American life are those that have at least some degree of bipartisan legitimacy, and the only government actions that achieve lasting success are those involving popular persuasion and outreach, cross-party cooperation and compromise.
That was true of the creation of Social Security, the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the birth of Medicare and Medicaid, the Clean Air Act in 1970—even Ronald Reagan’s 1986 tax reform. Politics-as-warfare can achieve no lasting victories; in the long term, its only accomplishments will be to break apart the country and accelerate America’s downfall as a global power.
Political movements of left and right alike stand in a long tradition dating back to the American Revolution of giving ordinary citizens a voice in the counsels of their leaders and representatives. But the Founding Fathers also dreaded the consequences of unchecked popular passions, the overthrow of moderation and the erosion of mutual tolerance and respect among Americans of differing views. The coming years may witness the realization of their worst fears.