Grassroots strategy – Democrats vs. Tea Party
With the Democrats poised to incur big losses in next week’s elections, the power of the grassroots movement that propelled Barack Obama into the White House seems a distant memory – until you glance to the right and see how conservatives have mobilized their own grassroots juggernaut. But does the Tea Partiers’ grassroots momentum have staying power? In “Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics,” Ari Berman charts the evolution of Obama’s grassroots movement, tracing its growth from Howard Dean’s innovative insurgency to the Democratic travails of today. Here, Berman, a political correspondent for the Nation, compares the grassroots approaches of the left and the right.
By Ari Berman
The conservative grassroots movement, known as the Tea Party, has emulated the grassroots model that defined Barack Obama’s historic presidential campaign. It has mobilized supporters both online and offline in red and blue states and is now poised to pick up a slew of seats in 2010 as a result.
Yet the insurgents on the right differ from their lefty counterparts in a few crucial ways, and these differences raise questions about the viability and sustainability of the Tea Party.
One notable distinction is fundraising. Tea Party-backed candidates like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell have raised significant sums of money in small donations over the Internet, a strategy Howard Dean pioneered and Obama perfected. But they’ve also been bolstered by a flood of money from corporations and and traditional Republican groups.
Longtime GOP strategists such as Karl Rove and major Republican Party donors such as the Koch Brothers -- stalwarts of the very Republican establishment that the Tea Partiers claim they’re fighting -- are directing much of these efforts. It will be difficult for the Tea Party to remain an insurgent grassroots movement in years to come if it allies itself too closely with Republican leaders in Washington.
Another major difference relates to ideology. Many conservative Republicans and libertarians, not to mention far-right fringe groups, rebranded themselves as Tea Partiers after the 2008 election. Thus, the Tea Party is far more ideological than the Dean or Obama campaigns ever were.
Dean, though identified with the progressive wing of his party, was known as a Clintonian moderate in Vermont, while Obama has shied away from a liberal or populist ideology during his campaign and presidency, instead embracing pragmatism as a guiding light. Many of the more liberal activists who powered the Democratic takeover of the Congress and the White House passionately supported candidates such as Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer who have bucked party orthodoxy on issues like gun control.
The Tea Party, on the other hand, has aggressively recruited conservative candidates such as Angle and advocated for ideological purity, even if it means, on occasion, squandering a winnable seat – as in the case of O’Donnell in Delaware. In future elections, especially if the economy improves, these angry insurgents may not go over so well with a more moderate electorate.
Finally, there’s the complexion issue. In contrast to Obama’s young and demographically diverse grassroots base, the Tea Party is richer, whiter, more conservative and more male-dominated than society as a whole.
“It’s more of a death rattle than a victory cry,” says Harvard University community organizing expert Marshall Ganz, who sees the Tea Party as the last gasp of a dwindling demographic.
It’s too soon to know if that’s the case – the Tea Partiers are very much alive in 2010 -- but ultimately the Tea Party movement will need to diversify, both demographically and ideologically, if it hopes to keep up with Obama’s rainbow coalition.
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