Women’s March Movement Must Follow Tea Party, not Occupy Wall St.

The Opposition Showed Up. It’s Big. Now the Question is: Can They Keep it Going?

You’ve probably seen this photo comparing Trump’s inauguration crowd to Obama’s from 2009.

The difference is obvious, and it makes Trump’s claim to the “largest audience ever to witness an inauguration” look silly.

But the crowd comparison that really matters is between the Women’s March and the Tea Party.

The Tea Party reshaped the GOP and gave rise to Trump. The Women’s March movement is ten times as large, indicating considerable potential.

Now they just have to harness it.

What Did the Women’s March Mean?

Before the march, there was some uncertainty over what the movement stood for. There were reports of infighting, with some stressing intersectionality and others advocating a single focus.

The media ran stories about women of color concerned the march would be for white women, and about white women feeling excluded by a Who’s Most Oppressed contest.

How many whites or people of color felt excluded is unclear, but conflict makes for good copy. It fit with the post-election narrative that the left’s problem is identity politics, so the media ran with it.

But in the end it didn’t matter.

There was a huge march in Washington, joined by huge marches in many other cities.

The message was unifying and unmistakable.

There’s a large, active, progressive opposition to Trump. And now everyone knows it.

No One Really Knew What the Tea Party Was For Either

It’s mostly forgotten now, but the Tea Party started with a rant against irresponsible borrowers.

On February 19, 2009, a month after Obama’s inauguration, CNBC’s Rick Santelli blamed the financial crisis on “losers” who took out risky mortgages, and attacked Obama for trying to help homeowners facing foreclosure modify their loans.

In response, Santelli called for a “Chicago Tea Party.”

Grassroots organizations sprung up around the country. They used the Tea Party name, but they weren’t really organized around opposition to mortgage relief.

Some Tea Partiers denounced the bank bailouts. Some claimed TEA stood for Taxed Enough Already. Some attacked the Republican establishment as much as they attacked Democrats. Some opposed Obamacare. And some focused on reducing immigration.

The Koch brothers tried to channel the Tea Party’s energy to their pet causes. FOX News promoted it, tried to shape it, and was shaped by it. Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann latched on, and tried to ride the wave.

When this anti-establishment movement put together a formal list of demands, it was the 10-point “Contract From America,” written by activist Ryan Hecker, in consultation with former House Republican leader Dick Armey.

In case you’re wondering how two of the ten ended up being “Reject Cap & Trade” and “Pass an ‘All of the Above’ Energy Policy,” Armey was a lobbyist with FreedomWorks, a Koch-funded advocacy group that sponsored Tea Party marches.

As with the Women’s March, the Tea Party movement did not align around a single policy proposal. Participants did not all say the same thing when asked what it stood for.

But it didn’t matter. There was a large, active, right-wing opposition to Obama, and everyone knew it.

The Tea Party Made a Difference, Occupy Wall St. Didn’t

The Tea Party wasn’t the only populist movement responding to the Great Recession. Occupy Wall St. sprang up on the left, denouncing bank bailouts and criticizing economic inequality.

Like the Tea Party, Occupy grabbed attention with protests. Starting on September 17, 2011, demonstrators set up in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park and refused to leave until the police kicked them out on November 15. In those two months, similar occupations sprung up in other cities, and thousands participated in single-day protests.

Also like the Tea Party, Occupy’s goals were unspecific, and internally debated.

However, though Occupy hasn’t completely disappeared, it’s only lasting impact is popularizing “the 1%” and “the 99%.”

Economic inequality hasn’t decreased, money doesn’t exert less influence on politics, student debt hasn’t been alleviated, and no bankers went to jail. Thanks to the 2016 election, the post-crisis banking regulations Wall St. spent millions lobbying against are probably gone.

By contrast, the Tea Party reshaped the Republican party, blocked Obama’s agenda, and set up Trump’s election.

That’s because the Tea Party participated in the political system, while Occupy shunned it.

Though their worldview is obviously closer to Democrats’ than Republicans’, Occupy stuck with both-parties-are-the-same.

The Tea Party flooded Congressional Representatives’ town halls, and organized for Republican races.

Occupy opposed hierarchy, and refused to appoint leaders.

The Tea Party backed candidates in Republican primaries. Their 2011 victories include:

  • Christine “I am not a witch” O’Donnell, who lost a winnable Senate election in Delaware
  • Joe Miller, who won the Republican Senate nomination in Alaska, but lost a three-way general election to incumbent Republican Lisa Murkowski’s write-in campaign
  • Jerry Moran (KS) and Mike Lee (UT), who won Senate seats
  • And over 20 who became Members of Congress, forming a Tea Party Caucus

With the Tea Party galvanizing turnout, Republicans retook the House in 2010.

That changed the country by giving Republicans the ability to block any law they wanted. And it changed the Republican party, which shifted to accommodate its most active supporters.

In 2014, the Tea Party claimed its greatest scalp: Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

The Republicans’ 2012 post-mortem warned that its immigration stance turned off Latinos, and suggested compromising on reform to take the issue off the table.

But the Tea Party wasn’t having it. David Bratt, a little known econ professor who had never held elective office, denounced Cantor’s support for immigration reform as “amnesty.” Cantor outspent Bratt 40:1 in the primary and lost by 12 points.

Congressional Republicans panicked. The party quickly dropped immigration reform, and incumbents rebranded themselves.

This set the stage for Trump’s surprise Republican primary victory.

Like the Tea Party, Trump’s base is anti-establishment and populist, but doesn’t focus on economic inequality.

The Tea Party demanded the mathematically impossible trifecta of tax cuts, protecting Social Security and Medicare, and a balanced budget. Trump promised all that, and then made the math even less plausible by adding infrastructure spending.

Like Tea Partiers, Trumpian populists tend to be older and whiter than the average American. They’re immigration hawks, and they support government spending as long as it benefits them and not an undeserving other.

Trump grasped this better than the Republican establishment, who erroneously assumed the Tea Party backed traditional conservative causes.

Occupy insisted the system was the problem and refused to participate. The Tea Party insisted the system was the problem and changed it.

Size Matters

The Women’s March movement is much larger than the Tea Party.

The largest Tea Party marches came on April 15, 2009. Over 300,000 Americans demonstrated in cities around the country. High estimates put the total at half a million.

The Women’s March beat that in D.C. alone. The low end estimate is 500,000.

Around the country, 3.5–4.5 million participated.

The largest single Tea Party demonstration was in Atlanta, where as many as 15,000 showed up.

In my state of Iowa — a bellwether that went Obama, Obama, Trump — 3,000 Tea Partiers demonstrated in Des Moines on April 15, 2009.

26,000 joined the Women’s March in Des Moines yesterday.

It’s already had an impact:

  • The election demoralized the left. The march reminded them that millions of Americans share their worldview.
  • It showed politicians that there’s a large, anti-Trump constituency, which will strengthen Democrats’ spine and introduce some doubt into Republicans who dislike Trump but fear Trumpian populists.
  • It helped Democrats turn the page from Hillary Clinton, providing a new rallying point.
  • And Donald Trump was so irked by the relative size of his inauguration crowd that he sent out Press Secretary Sean Spicer to lie about it.

What This Means for Democrats

A month ago, I identified four mistaken post-election fights Democrats were having.

One was progressive economics vs. identity politics. The Women’s March smoothed over this rift, alleviating some lingering bitterness from the Sanders-Clinton primary.

Just last month, Bernie Sanders denounced identity politics, arguing that Democrats should emphasize economic issues to win over the white working class.

Now, much as Mitch McConnell and other Republican officeholders reinvented themselves in response to Tea Party demonstrations, Bernie’s changed his tune:

But if the march helped Democrats move on from that mistaken fight, they’re still focusing on presidential politics to the detriment of everything else.

To change the country, the Women’s March needs to follow the Tea Party’s playbook, not Occupy’s.

Participate in the political process. Win state-level elections. Shape the Democratic party by backing candidates in Congressional primaries. Organize for the general election to win at least one house of Congress.

Keep demonstrating, show up to town halls and other constituent events, and contact representatives.

Make politicians fear they’ll lose elections if they cross you.

You’re 10 times the size of the Tea Party. And just look at what they could do.

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