Last week, just after winning the Indiana primary, Bernie Sanders vowed to stay in the Democratic presidential race until the last primary, on June 14. “I think we are perpetuating the political revolution by significantly increasing the level of political activity that we’re seeing in this country,” he said regarding why he won’t drop out of a race that is increasingly unlikely for him to win. This “revolution” grew out of public recognition that the grievances and aspirations of average Americans were being ignored by the most politicians, and Sanders’s ability to attract nearly half of Democratic voters shows that a broad base exists for an independent challenge to the party establishment. Over the past decade, we’ve also seen large protests erupt in the United States through Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and movements for immigrant rights and climate justice. But how can this energy translate into electoral power in our rigid two-party system? Progressives might take a page from the inside-outside strategy embraced by the Tea Party.
Inside and Outside
While over a thousand third parties have been formed in the United States, only a handful have ever won over more than 5 percent of the vote—and most die out after a couple of election cycles. That’s because in our first-past-the-post system third parties have virtually no chance of winning a majority of voters on a national scale. In proportional systems, if you win 15 percent of the vote, you get 15 percent of the seats. In our system, if you win 15 percent of the vote, you typically receive no seats at all. In proportional systems, new parties often translate protest in the streets into political institutions. In our system, with its high barriers to entry for new parties, protest movements who want to reach for electoral power can only manifest themselves through the formation of emergent factions within existing political parties.
The Tea Party movement, which emerged in 2009 following Barack Obama’s inauguration, has all but transformed—if not taken over—the GOP. It functions much like an independent third party: an ideologically uncompromising alternative for conservatives frustrated by the big-business and immigration-reform wing of the GOP. But instead of creating a third party to challenge Republicans in general elections and risk conservative defeat, they challenge incumbents in primaries—redefining the mainstream of the party in the process. Tea Party primary challenges have moved the GOP rightward toward a more aggressive agenda of cutting government spending and blocking immigration reform at whatever cost—including a government shutdown. As one right-wing blogger put it: “The Tea Party’s impact in primaries is largely about putting fear into establishment candidates, whether they knock them off or not.”
For progressives, the biggest lesson to be learned from the Tea Party’s playbook is that they don’t work for the Republicans—they make the Republicans work for them. Bernie has already begun to do the same with the Democrats, and his primary race should encourage others to challenge establishment Democrats from the left. The progressive formation that has perhaps made the most headway in this regard is the one I work for: the Working Families Party. The WFP is a coalition of community-organizing groups and labor unions that push progressive policies, like paid sick leave, and help elect a new generation of leaders on the state and local level. While we’re proud of what we’ve built, we’re a long way from the ideological and electoral power that the Tea Party exercises. The WFP has figured out how to maneuver inside and outside the two-party system without falling prey to the usual failures of third parties, and is now organizing in 11 states. But the Tea Party has taken over Congress, and done so without an institutionalized party apparatus. Neither the WFP nor a prior, important effort to launch a Tea Party of the left—Rebuild the Dream—have generated the kind of momentum and mass participation of the Tea Party.