Conservatives had their fair share of “astroturfing” allegations lobbed at them around last year’s town hall meetings on health care reform. But it would seem that in 2010, it’s liberals’ turn to take a kick at the can.
According to the Washington Post, liberals leaders and groups are, “forming a coalition that they hope will match the [tea party] movement's political energy and influence.” Uniting under the banner of One Nation, liberals, “promise to ‘counter the tea party narrative’ and help the progressive movement find its voice again after 18 months of floundering.”
This is a laudable goal to my mind, but it is destined for failure, ultimately.
I am generally sympathetic to liberals and progressives on the grounds that the Obama administration has largely marginalized much of their messaging and many of their ideas. Readers might not like the ideas of self-described liberals and progressives, but I think a commitment to vibrant and meaningful political debate means general support for most any ideological group in getting its ideas into the mix to either be held up or shot down in the course of national deliberation.
In this regard, I agree with One Nation organizers that the progressive movement’s voice has been “floundering.”
But an organization that is started by liberal leaders, aimed at replicating the success of the tea party movement misses entirely the key element of that success: the sincerity of the tea party movement’s grassroots origins.
There has been no shortage of theorizing about the degree to which organizations like FreedomWorks control the actions of the vast majority of tea party movement actions. But, at the end of the day, the grassroots bona fides of the movement seem difficult to dispute. Even skeptics like Chris Good have taken to describing the relatinship between FreedomWorks and the tea party movement thusly,
“While Tea Partiers don't maintain a target list of their own, the FreedomWorks list may serve as a loose guideline for where Tea Partiers (who talk to and coordinate with FreedomWorks) place their efforts and affect races.”
“Loose guidelines,” and talking and coordinating with one another are a far cry from being controlled by prominent and well funded conservative organizations.
In addition to the grassroots origins of the tea party movement, the real key to its success is the sincerity of beliefs of its members. Tea partiers, whether you agree with them or not, are clearly average Americans who believe strongly in the issues for which they are advocating. That belief and the fact that as many of those Americans have become actively engaged in the political debate of their country translates into show of passion that, at least in part, determines the success of the movement.
Watching tea party protests, one has no trouble seeing for one’s self just how given over to the issues at stake the participants are. Their commitment to making their voices heard and shaping what they take to be the correct direction for their country is evident in every gesture on display.
One would have no problem imagining many — if not all — of the participants taking the time to research different candidates in their local races and then fervently supporting those that most closely aligned with their beliefs. One can practically hear participants calling friends, family, and acquaintances relentlessly to suggest support for those candidates based on their issues of choice. And one can practically see those participants having conversations in restaurants and grocery stores and where ever there might an audience to discuss why their candidate is the right candidate based on those issues.
That kind of a commitment is a dynamic that shapes elections. And it is a commitment that no amount of money or advertising can buy.
This, then, is why the tea party movement has been so successful. And that degree of passion and commitment is not something that either liberal or conservative leaders can generate through any number of organizations or public relations campaigns. These are dynamics born of people who care deeply about their country and have a conviction about the need to participate in the democratic process of that country, outside of the cyclical process of elections.
If the progressive movement is missing something, it is that degree of passion and commitment. Indeed, in the Post article President of the NAACP Benjamin Jealous notes, “we felt it urgent to organize the majority of this country, which voted in 2008 and has gone back to the couch.”
What liberal leaders like Jealous need to understand is that their job is not to organize those voters who have gone back to the couch. Rather, liberal efforts must focus on assisting those voters in finding the inspiration for themselves that precludes going back to the couch as an option.
As the tea party movement has amply demonstrated, doing so can have explosive political results. However, no amount of astroturfing can achieve that goal.