The Tea Parties and the Professional Left

by Benjamin Domenech on 5:57 pm August 12, 2010

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Robert Gibbs’ comments about what he refers to as “the professional left” have riled a lot of people over the past few days, and provoked some interesting responses. It’s no surprise that Jane Hamsher has the best assessment of the problem — as much as Hamsher and I disagree about policy, she speaks as a true activist progressive, not someone in their position of prominence because of their ability to gladhand and water-carry for the White House.

When White House press secretary Robert Gibbs excoriated government critics (“the professional left”) for being ungrateful SOB’s considering all that this administration has done for them, he wasn’t acting as a lone wolf. It’s a refrain that has oft been uttered by this White House, from Rahm Emanuel’s “f*#@ing r&#tards” to “top Obama advisors” who vent to Politico about an “elite group of commentators on the left.” …

But with the public’s approval ratings of Congress at near-historic lows and not budging, it’s hard to see how this could be the fault of a couple of bloggers nobody has heard of. More likely, it’s the result of constituencies who aren’t happy with symbolic gestures while the government’s priority is to battle for the dollars of big corporate donors.

Lawrence Lessig makes a similar point in a slightly different way: “Our criticism is that Obama is failing the Obama test: That he is not delivering the Presidency that he promised.” Yet Gibbs is standing by his comments that what progressives want and expect from the current Washington leadership is unrealistic, essentially branding a significant portion of the president’s political base as a crew of political naifs. Yes, Mr. Gibbs, that’s it — kicking the people who are upset about the president’s failure to keep so many of his lofty promises — that’s the ticket to success.

There’s a lesson here for both conservative and progressive activists — we’ve seen this game before, and recently, on the right side of the aisle. The latest evidence from the Sam Adams Alliance Tea Party survey illustrates that a rising percentage of members of the tea party movement are (as some of us have been saying for a while) political independents who are strongly fiscally conservative. Many of them are people who started calling themselves Republicans in the mid-1990s, and stopped calling themselves Republicans during Bush’s second term, when the few fiscal conservatives in the administration were on the outs with the White House.

When the relationship between a politician and his base falls apart, it doesn’t happen all at once (well, unless your name is Mark Sanford). It takes time — mild disgust at a sellout maneuver or a squishy approach to a policy issue turns into constant irritation, which eventually becomes anger at daily acts of obvious betrayal. What should disturb the real professional left (by which I don’t mean the hardworking activists or grassroots organizers, but the administration’s crew of eager lackeys and well-paid water-carriers), is that after a two-year period where Barack Obama has squandered nearly all of the goodwill he brought to office, they’ve essentially reached the same point in a declining relationship that it took six years for George W. Bush to attain: open warfare with thousands of people who worked for months to elect him.

In many ways, this could create a much worse scenario for Democrats than what the Republican Party has experienced. The Tea Party movement is a new phenomenon, but it’s really only interesting as a political matter because it’s so unprecedented on the right. We’re unused to seeing the mild-mannered middle class voter and small businessperson take to the streets in disgust at the betrayal of their representatives — they’re a silent minority of the country. The progressive movement, by comparison, is experienced at this stuff, used to the tactics and the approaches that make their voices heard. When the grassroots left’s frustration reaches a certain level, the White House and Congressional Democrats will know — not just because they see the protesters they will see in their districts, but because of the voters they won’t see on election day.

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