The Tea Party vs The Netroots

So yesterday a colleague and I were talking about how honestly envious we are of what the GOP base has been able to do this year – run dozens of candidates for statewide and federal office, rack up a decent win rate, and get real conservative movementarians to win major nominations. Contrast this what we’ve done on the netroots over the last six years, with not more than a handful of genuine movement candidates, let alone winners. Frankly it’d be fun to have the sort of wave the right is having now.But I think this is both an obvious analysis and the wrong one. The Tea Party and the Netroots are two very different creatures.First, the Netroots is a progressive, grassroots movement that does not have institutional support from the Democratic Party apparatus (neither nationally nor on the state/local level). The Netroots does not have major Democratic donors stepping towards us with millions of dollars to fund various grassroots entities – neither as astroturf outfits nor genuine movement training houses. The Netroots does not have scores of past failed nominees for Democratic offices, state level party officials, Democratic millionaires, established party activists and corporate donors providing the bulk of our candidates for office. In a word, the Netroots is a genuine grassroots movement defined by the lack of support from the various institutions and iterations of Democratic power.Second, the Tea Party is a conservative movement that includes genuine grassroots activists, alongside (or pushed by) major party leaders (Gingrich, Palin, Armey, Beck, Limbaugh), astroturf organizations (Freedom Works, Tea Party Express), and corporate donors (Koch). The Tea Party candidates have been primarily Republican office holders, party officials, major donors and operatives. It is a both real and astroturfed front for what have been traditional Republican goals (abolishing Department of Education, cutting Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment benefits, reducing taxes on the wealthy). Yes, the candidates have tended to say things bluntly, making them appear more extreme than your average Republican. But this is purely something that arises from a willingness to stop hiding behind the polished messaging of Luntz and Rove-types. It doesn’t represent a new shift of the movement (though, in fairness, the Netroots has always pushed for ideas that were also traditionally Democratic, but never forcefully argued for by elected officials). The Tea Party’s success is almost completely explainable by the degree of support they receive from traditional Republican infrastructure and power bases – solely excluding the NRSC, NRCC, and RGA in some places.Anyway I think there’s a real story to tell about how making assumptions about Tea Party success versus Netroots failure (or dramatically slower rate of success) is wrong. This is not an apples to apples comparison, yet I expect lots of Beltway media types and Republican activists will be trying to imply that it is in order to further the narrative that America is a right-leaning country.Update:In the comments, Tim Jones points out another difference between the Tea Party and Netroots that has substantially helped the Tea Party succeed is they have major support from the mainstream media, including basically  complete allegiance from Fox News and formation based around the comments of a CNBC contributor.

4 thoughts on “The Tea Party vs The Netroots

  1. Great points. I also think the support from the mainstream media is significant — the Tea Party has been sold to the public and to DC by Fox News and others from day one, whereas the closest the netroots have gotten is Rachel Maddow, and that only after several years of hard work.

    And of course the party support question extends to the White House as well. Rove knew how to keep the conservative base happy, always dangling a gay marriage amendment or some other shiny object in front of them. Obama on the other hand… well, you get the point.

    That Obama promised to usher in a new era of progressive grassroots involvement in government is just insult to injury.


  2. Something I’ve noticed is the decline in dogwhistle politics on the right as candidates have stopped bothering to code their messages. This is demonstrated by the polls that show that Tea Partiers are, in fact, Republicans. We are simply witnessing the GOP platform unburdened from any sense of political correctness. In brief, the GOP has decided to stop talking to the middle in favor of working itself into a fervor.

    For me, that marks a pretty big difference between the Tea Party and the Netroots: politicians on the left generally have not adopted the vernacular of their base (or, for that matter, its fringe). Thus, while there is plenty of activism and fire on the left, the left establishment has yet to feel the need to adapt its status quo positions or practices to it.

    As an example, compare how the far right is demanding total conservative purity from the center right while the center left is telling the far left to be happy with Obama’s victories regardless of their ideological/policy purity. It’s a completely different mindset.

    For you, Matt, coming from the Netroots, I think this explains your jealousy of the Tea Party to a great degree. They have successfully taken over their party, electorally, linguistically, and policy-wise. The Netroots hasn’t done that.

    Of course, whether total purity in either or both parties is a good thing is another question. As much as some people (he says, knowingly introducing a possible straw man) might want to run Alan Grayson-types in every race around the country, I’d argue that the Democrats would probably be better running people who can talk like Grayson and compromise like Kennedy did, at least in more conservative districts. A party can be a spectrum in fact, but a lot rides on how it brands itself as a party. The Tea Party has branded its entire party; the Netroots have not.


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