The Democrats' left wing needs a Tea Party.
Not THE Tea Party, the gaggle of conservative activists who played such a large role in Republican politics in the runup to the midterm elections. But a Tea Party of their very own. Otherwise, they will finally have blown the chance to take America in a genuinely progressive direction.
Many leftwingers in America are in deep despair. After all the hope and promise of 2008, they feel President Barack Obama spent the first two years of his term pointlessly reaching out to a Republican party that played him (successfully) for a fool. Obama's healthcare reforms ended up a compromised muddle. He failed to lead on gay rights. He rescued the banks and let them make even more profits than before. The system that took us to the brink of economic catastrophe is back up and running with few changes and less punishment.
And, for all his pains, Obama then suffered a historic drubbing at the polls. His answer? To move even more to the right and buy into the Republicans' false argument that Obama's problems are somehow because he was a lefty radical – a "socialist", by their accounts.
No wonder the left is angry.
Which is why they need to take a leaf out of the Tea Party's book and actually do something about it. Enough talking: time for real action.
Whatever you think of the Tea Party's actual politics, you have to admire their courage and tenacity and willingness to organise and work for their beliefs. Even when all the received wisdom of the political classes said they were on a hiding to nothing.
The Tea Party's situation is an exact parallel to the left's current malaise. The Tea Party's supporters thought they were not being listened to. They saw a party political leadership out of touch with their base and what their base wanted. So, they organised.
They backed candidates in Republican primaries who espoused their rightwing beliefs and they ran them against the Republican establishment. Sometimes, they won big. But, more importantly, even when they lost, they often only did so because they forced the Republican elite to adopt their Tea Party agenda. They dragged the Republican party to the right even as many said that was electoral suicide. They stuck to their values and they ended up triumphing at the polls. Their gamble paid off.
Now the Democrats' left needs to grow a spine and do the same. It needs to reject the current rush to the right as espoused by retiring Democratic Senator Evan Bayh and his ilk. The left needs to mimic the Tea Party by organising its own candidates who will run against establishment Democrats in primary contests. It needs to take action and force the party's leadership to listen – with a genuine threat on the ground, not just talking shops and outraged op-eds. It needs to grab the party and drag it left, accepting the reality that, without a fight, the left will always be paid lip service to by Democratic leaders, but ignored when it comes to policy (just as the pre-Tea Party conservative Republican right was).
But that, many will say, would be a recipe for electoral defeat. But they already tried the opposite – moving the right – and failed. And the pragmatism argument is what they told the Tea Party as well, and look what happened there. Perhaps the Democrats, too, need to swap a constant search for the middle with a switch to energising and enthusing their base.
To borrow Howard Dean's old rallying cry from 2003, isn't it about time someone represented "the Democratic wing of the Democratic party"? It is. But it won't be Obama. It needs to be ordinary Democrats themselves.