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The new left populism

Populism can run in a variety of directions, with a variety of unexpected results, as American Republicans are learning to their chagrin at the moment. But were those results really so unexpected?

This week is a Congressional recess, theoretically set aside for lawmakers to go home to their districts and connect with their constituents. Many, of course, are using it for fundraising in an election cycle that never really ends. Their constituents, however, are asking to speak with them, and a tide of town halls across the country has not been going well.

Sometimes lawmakers just don’t show up. Others duck out early. Others stand there being berated by constituents and bested by seven-year-old boys who apparently have a firmer grasp of the political system than they do. Constituents are cheekily putting up ‘missing’ posters to ask where their lawmakers have gone, and they’re descending upon district offices to lodge grievances.

The Republican Party is pitching this angry town hall movement as the product of paid protesters. They’re claiming that the people at these events — even in isolated rural communities — are not real constituents, but instead plants who have arrived to stir up trouble. Even when constituents are holding up identification cards to prove that they are in fact district residents, lawmakers are ignoring the truth in front of them: Their constituents are angry, and after years and sometimes decades of being a silent minority, they’re fighting back. They’re using the tools of the system for their own ends, to force lawmakers to listen. They’re threatening to run for office to destabilise the stranglehold the party has on their districts.

Does this sound inspiring and exciting?

That’s funny, because it didn’t eight years ago, when American conservatives were doing the exact same thing. After President Obama’s election, furious conservatives organised in droves in an attempt to retake Congress and radicalise Republican lawmakers — it wasn’t enough, in some districts, to be Republican. It was also necessary to cater to the whims of the Tea Party. People talked about themselves as emerging from darkness and silence — the @AngryTownHall Twitter rose to use satire to mock their efforts.

The left was furious at what they perceived as a hijacking of the processes of government, while the right argued that it had a moral imperative to retake control, to push back on the horrors being pushed through by the Obama Administration. The people driving that movement genuinely believed that they had a patriotic responsibility to their country, to reclaim its values, and very similar rhetoric is arising on the side of the left today. The left says it wants to defend civil liberties and freedoms, to protect civil rights at all costs. In 2009, the Tea Party was asserting that it needed to protect Americans from big government and maintain the sanctity of religious beliefs.

Depending on your political inclinations, the goals of one of those sides may feel repugnant and deeply disturbing, evidence of one part of the country attempting to suppress the freedoms of the other. But both sides are motivated by similar things — a desire to protect a vision of America, to cultivate a country where people can be free to express themselves and live as they wish. For one side, that means oppressing people, hounding them out of public life, codifying discrimination, and tearing down civil rights gains. For the other, that means building a more plural society in which people of all backgrounds are welcome and explicitly included, their civil rights protected, attempts at discriminating against them punished.

Both movements rely fundamentally on populism, on putting power and voice back into the control of the people, and using that to drive a movement that reforms the balance of power. And it’s important for the American left to recognise their similarities, even if it makes people uncomfortable. Both followed very similar trajectories — Indivisible, a group helping people across the country get involved in local politics, has explicitly stated that it is harnessing the tactics of the Tea Party against the American right, taking advantage of techniques that have proved effective in the past to push through change.

As the right screeches about ‘paid protesters’ and ‘organizers,’ it would do well to remember that what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander as well. There’s absolutely no evidence to support claims of paid protesters and outside agitators. There are no leftists sneaking into traditionally conservative districts to radicalise constituents and act as plants at town halls and community meetings. What happened is simply that a sleeping giant awoke, much as it did in 2008, and people who hadn’t been politically active and had little interest in politics except as an abstract notion suddenly became so, and have thrown themselves into political organising — whether this movement fizzles out like the Tea Party remains to be seen, but the rise and fall of the Tea Party should be an instructive lesson for leftists trying to use its tactics.

In the National Review, a detailed dissection of the fall of the Tea Party explored several issues that the left should bear in mind if it wants to leverage the newfound political activity on the part of formerly dormant democrats. Jim Garaghty noted that major Tea Party leaders left office, leaving the party somewhat rudderless without people in positions of power, and commented that Tea Party candidates started getting embarrassing, unable to bridge the divide between the party and other conservatives, let alone the left. He also suggested that perhaps the movement was driven by ‘attitude’ without the teeth of policy reform; flashy protest signs and dramatic outbursts at town halls, without any real backing.

Or, Geraghty suggested, perhaps the Tea Party went underground, became a sleeper cell, turned into the Republican Party itself — something many leftists are hoping happens with their own resurgence as they lobby for a takeover of the Democratic Party. The internecine proxy fight over the DNC chair illustrates that to a tee. It certainly went establishment, as argued in The Atlantic, with prominent Tea Party members receiving substantial financial support from the same institutions they claimed to hate.

Leveraging populist politics against the right isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As America learned at great cost in 2016, they are highly effective, and there’s no sense in reinventing the wheel. But it’s important to look at the history of the movements the left decries, and for the movement to honestly and authentically explore its role in the new world order, lest it become that which it loathes.

Photo: Ford School of Public Policy/Creative Commons