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Democrats Need a Tea Party of the Left

A grassroots insurrection successfully transformed the Republican Party. Progressives need to emulate it.

David McNew / Getty Images

It’s been less than a week since Hillary Clinton’s unexpected defeat, and the obituaries for the Democratic Party are already being written. “The Democratic Party Deserved To Die,” Krystal Ball declared in The Huffington Post. “This is how a political party dies,” argued Paul Rosenberg at Salon. The sentiment is understandable. Having lost all three branches of government, Democrats are staring down the horror of a Donald Trump presidency and the myriad ways he can destroy President Barack Obama’s legacy. They are right to feel a certain amount of despair.

But this despair can be paralyzing, reinforcing a narrative of helplessness that says the country is on the brink of a complete breakdown. This despair also inspires pointless second-guessing about whether Democrats picked the wrong candidate. It doesn’t matter if Senator Bernie Sanders would have beaten Donald Trump. Laying blame on Clinton or the Democratic National Committee or FBI Director James Comey or the media or Facebook is an intellectual exercise that might make some feel better for a few hours, but it will not change the results of an election where the Democratic candidate, once again, lost despite handily winning the popular vote.

This is almost exactly the position the Republican Party faced eight years ago after Obama won the White House by motivating voters who had sat out previous elections—minus the popular vote discrepancy. In fact the GOP had it even worse with Democrats holding a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. There was a lot of soul-searching and angst among Republicans about the future of their party, but it took very little time for them to move from anxiety to grassroots action.

The left must now find inspiration from the right by starting their own Tea Party revolution.

Within months of the 2008 election, people dissatisfied with Republican politics as usual began to organize, and the Tea Party took hold. People took it upon themselves to demand that their leaders in Washington either resist Obama more forcefully or face primary challengers in their districts and states.

By the midterm elections of 2010, it was clear just how powerful this movement had become. Tea Party candidates won 42 House seats and five Senate seats; then they blocked Obama at every chance they could, even forcing our government to shut down over the debt ceiling. The Tea Party has been extremely successful, and its success came from people who were relentlessly committed to their cause, who refused to compromise their beliefs, and who realized that they only way to gain power was to field candidates at every level of government. They stared down their losses in 2008 and decided that instead of conceding defeat, they needed to double down. If anything, the Tea Party ranks have expanded since then, and it’s safe to assume that they will become the dominant force in government under Trump. (Senator Jeff Sessions, an early Trump supporter, is being considered for a cabinet position.)

Before we all throw in the towel and move to Canada, we might want to learn a few lessons from a movement so many of us despise. But it won’t be easy. Democrats notoriously prefer to ruminate. They are more apt to weigh possibilities and seek consensus and common ground. Some may even point to Clinton’s concession speech and Obama’s “cordial” meeting with Trump as signs that we must give Trump a chance and try to work with him. But their words were ceremonial, nothing but the necessary platitudes that signify a peaceful transfer of power.

What we need instead is a movement that builds upon the steadfast devotion of Sanders’s supporters, one that can arise from the bottom and give people a chance to feel like they have the power to make a difference. Unfortunately, too many people have given up on the expectation that their government is working for them. Fairly or not, Clinton was seen by many not as a devoted public servant, but as beholden to big money and establishment politics.

Like many others, I was unconvinced by the narrative of an angry electorate. It seemed at odds with the America I knew, one that was generally prosperous and clearly recovering from the worst recession of modern times. Obama’s approval numbers seemed to encourage this blindness, as did the polls showing a healthy Clinton lead.

It was this misreading of the electorate and the complacency of many Democrats (like me) which bordered on smugness that allowed for Trump to sweep to power. Still, nothing stirs people out of complacency like a genuine threat to their way of life, which Trump and total Republican control seem certain to provide over the next four years. A Trump presidency leaves us with no choice but to wake up and engage with politics in a way similar to that of the Tea Party.

Democratic leadership is aging. Its ranks are thin thanks to Republican dominance on the state and local levels, and we need fresh blood to bubble in and take over the progressive cause. We must translate despair and anger into action, but not just with protests and marches or with well-meaning but politically ineffective movements like Occupy Wall Street. These are important but insufficient. The only way to effect real change is to encourage a new generation of leaders to commit themselves to running for office at every level of government and empower them to be the change they want to see in this world.

We must make the 2018 midterm elections a national cause, insist that these election years are just as important, if not more so, than presidential election years. Starting today, we must come up with our own “Contract with America,” a plan that can express in clear terms what Democrats stand for, and what they will not stand for. If we believe the survival of our republic is at stake, do we have any other choice?