Leveraging our Power in the Face of Red-baiting, Right Wing Populism: The Tea Party in the Context of Mass Work and Community Organizing

When the tea party first came on the scene and Glenn Beck started putting people we know on his chalkboard, organizers on the Left began questioning our strategy and personal safety. How bad is this trend? Bad. Of course it’s dangerous to have well-resourced, gun-toting, racist, homophobic folks running around with tea bags on their hats. It’s not just bad fashion sense.

Some reactions people I have overheard for what the Tea Party (TP) means for the Left:

  1. “Things are getting worse.”
  2. “We have to learn from the tea party.”
  3. “Should I change my name?”
  4. “Should we stop calling ourselves socialists since people view it so negatively?”
  5. “Should we avoid all ‘wedge issues’ like racism?”

Quick response to these reactions—

  1. Worse than what?
  2. Learn from them? Yes and no.
  3. I like your name.
  4. Actually, socialism is doing better in popularity according to the latest polls—but there are regional differences.
  5. We have to talk about racism, it’s our job. Plus, the leadership of the TP would not like to be painted as a racist movement. They would like to paint Obama as one. They have a problem gaining younger membership and racism in the party is thought to keep the younger generation away.

Now that we are done reacting, let’s realize there’s a missing piece to this puzzle: Left and progressive organizers were and can continue to be a powerful threat to the right wing agenda and agents for systematic change in this country. The key to flexing this power lies in pushing an issue-based independent agenda, uniting our forces, developing broad united fronts and utilizing bigger and bolder tactics from electoral organizing to creative direct action.

Right Wing Populism in Context

In May, a poll was released by New York Times/CBS News that showed how prevalent the Tea Party support and activism has become in the U.S. In a survey of 1,033 adults, 28 percent said that they are a supporter of the Tea Party. Four percent of Americans identify as activists (those who attend rallies or donate money) within the Tea Party.

The Bad— While they do not represent a majority, this is still significant because of the amount of coverage the Tea Party receives from the mainstream media and the amount of leverage they have among politicians.

Thirty one percent of Tea Partiers own a gun. A University of Washington poll taken in May, shows that racist, anti-immigrant and homophobic views are the norm rather than the fringe views among Tea Partiers.

The Good— Measuring their ability to forward their agenda, they have only three primary victories. Other TP-backed candidates have either lost primary races or are losing traction due to their extreme views.

While we may not be running the country the way that Tea Partiers believe we are, more people in this country support socialism as an alternative to capitalism than support the Tea Party. With all the Tea Party hysteria one may have missed that 36% of Americans view socialism favorably in a January Gallup poll.

The Myths—A myth among leftists is that the TP is made up of unemployed and less-educated white people with a lot of time on their hands and legitimate yet misguided anger. You only got the white part right. This myth leads some to believe if we could just move forward a jobs agenda we could move them over to a progressive agenda. A jobs agenda would be great and could unite broad sectors of the working class but it will not necessarily move a significant amount of TP supporters to our side. According to the New York Times / CBS news poll, the TP supporters are wealthier and more well-educated than the general public, and their strong opposition to the Obama administration is more rooted in political ideology than anxiety about their personal economic well-being.

Regardless, we can still win over a significant majority of the population to progressive to left politics. We should organize broadly among working class people, build alliances and do the education necessary to draw the links of how racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia oppress all of us and divides the working class. We cannot conceive of organizing narrowly only within our individual sectors.

There is one reflection that exists within the assumptions of this myth is worth examining: The failure of the Left to present a clear message and analysis that speaks to people on a broad scale and raises their level of political consciousness. On the one hand, we do not own the media, and we certainly do not get the amount of coverage that the Tea Party gets even when we have demonstrations or gatherings twice their size. On the other hand, sometimes when we do put out a message it’s as if we just want to talk to ourselves and be the cooler-than-you clique. I thought this was just a symptom of student activism, but now that I’m not a student I realize it’s not. We are not thinking about how we are going to win more people over to our side.

Tea Party Takes Tips from Activist Handbooks, Should We Take a Lesson From Theirs?

The TP reads Rules for Radicals, which curiously reads a lot like Mao. The Tea Party is Socialist! Heh heh heh heh. Saul Alinsky is rumored to have had a Maoist roommate that heavily influenced him. TP doesn’t actually follow all of the rules but some activist tactics they have executed quite well. What tips from their book could we actually take: Ignorant arguments? (Er. No.) Completely ignoring history and science? (Okay, some of the racist history taught in school, yes, but mostly NO.) Well-financed campaigns? (That would help). Running our own candidates. (Yes.) Taking offensive positions against our opponents (Double yes.)

Here’s a page from the TP playbook of what actions they are asking their members and leaders to take (from the Surge USA site):

  • Pressure the liberal insurgents in their home states and Congressional districts;
  • Find better alternatives locally, and visibly support them now. Don’t wait for 2010 or 2012;
  • Pressure Republicans at all levels (national, state, and local) to restore limited government;
  • Reach out to independent voters in your community. Get organized for the primaries;
  • Organize local political career “death panels” for targeting efforts in the primaries;
  • Promote accountability by organizing groups of local independent donors or PACs;
  • Make candidate endorsements—and get volunteers to work for their campaigns now.

Understanding Our Power

Activists and revolutionaries are often very good at analyzing the ins and outs of a crisis or problem but not understanding the power they have to change things. There is at times almost a reveling in being the victim but not rising to the occasion to become social actors who have a role in constructing the world we wish to see.

In 2003, the largest anti-war movement the world has ever seen was organized. While this did not change the Bush Administrations unilateral tactics it was a writing on the wall for the change. Still today, the percentage of people who are opposed both the war on Iraq and Afghanistan continues to grow. So why not push to seal the deal?

Single-payer health care has been a part of the left debate since 1919. With such a crappy name who ever thought it would get into the mainstream debate? I remember folks working on this in the early 90s and thinking that’s going nowhere. In October of 2009 there was a majority of people who supported a public option – until a small minority of Tea Party activists were effective in switching the debate with death panels and fear. Where was the left? Many still debating each other about whether or not we should engage in policy fights. Sitting at home on their facebooks and blogs. If we had a viable party, perhaps we would have sectors organized and ready to relate to these strategic calls, and there would be a place for electoral work and other types of tactics.

Consciousness is beginning to shift, cities are becoming majority people of color, young people are becoming more politically involved. The question is if we are going to engage now or wait for some romanticized day of revolution.

Leftists: You Should Be Gettin’ While the Gettin’ Is Good

You’re good enough. You’re smart enough and people like you. Now use it before you lose it.

While the left in general are hugely underdogs we fail to realize what we have going for us at this point. If we stay stuck in reaction and are not able to move forward our agenda, we are in danger of an even scarier political

What would it mean to “use it”:

  1. Stop getting divided among tactics and wage the struggle on all fronts.

    We should push each other on our tactics and raise criticism. However at a certain point, let’s let folks try out their tactics and sum them up. Some folks will build alternatives and co-ops, some folks will do electoral work, some folks will organize direct actions, some folks will organize town-hall meetings. Not everything has to be a victim blame game. This is not the time for “we can’t because…”

    Often when people enter a left or progressive space they come to the table jockeying to prove themselves (whether consciously or unconsciously) and pushing the “most correct line.” When they discover a weak spot within the organizing effort they raise their criticism against the effort to tear it down, rather than in a spirit of making the work better and ultimately winning the fight. They then turn their energy toward organizing against rather than building the whole. This is tiring. Realize that there will be mistakes, there will be blind-spots, there will be ignorance because not everyone instantly knows everyone’s issues and oppressions. Work to build the whole and give specific ways to improve the effort. Reflect on when is this about you and your ego rather than building the effort to win.

  2. Do not be afraid of the debate from the other side. Engage it.

    If people with a different politic than ours want to engage in a debate, see this as an opportunity. Trust that people viewing this debate will make an informed decision. Often we try to close the door on folks with a different opinion, which allows them to keep making false accusations about where we stand without having to actually hear our side.

    Being counter-protested can be unsettling especially when others are turning our tactics against us. Inviting them in (under certain provisions of course) may throw them off, de-escalate, and help to draw attention to our perspectives. There are always factors of slanted news stories, selective quoting, and threats of violence so be prepared for that.

  3. Understand the importance and the method of building united fronts and tactical alliances.

    It will take an entire movement— not one single organization—to make the kind of changes we want to see. It will take uniting across unions, non-profits, religious organizations. broad masses who we may agree with us on a particular issue but are unsure about another issues. We need to focus more on winning the issue together and less on who is going to get credit.

  4. Be a part of a coordinated and united left through organization.

    We are not going to win with individuals sitting at home complaining. Find collectives, organizations, parties perhaps that fit the political work you want to do and get in the game.

  5. Build real mass bases and don’t fool your self by staying small and insignificant.

    We need to engage all of these folks who share our politics. We need to try out new strategies and new ways of engaging new people to our bases. Unity-building helps but it’s not enough to just combine our numbers. Our power is within the people, not money or eye-winking individuals. What we are building is not about a competition with the Tea Party, it’s for the engagement of millions of oppressed people in a true democracy, it’s about winning on issues that create a just and equal society and ultimately overturning this system of oppression.

  6. Understand the local and national terrain

    The point of engagement that we start with will be different in different locales. Red-baiting and violence is real in many communities but we have to make clear assessments. Many times people mistake a loud right-wing minority for the majority viewpoint when the majority is actually just silent and possibly intimidated by the loud-right. This can also be true in terms of determining activist safety from violence and red-baiting. At the same time, people should not confuse the politics in your community or in your city (San Francisco or New York for example) as the politics of the nation. The state is national and in particular during these times of economic crisis that leaves the majority of cities bankrupt. Politics are playing out on a national scale.

  7. Stop making excuses. Start making mistakes.

    Enough said.

What if you are red baited?

First back track a moment and be sure that you are solid in your mass work. You ARE putting yourself in danger if you are isolating yourself and not correctly practicing the mass line. Safety and power is numbers of supporters. Both rational and moral arguments are on our side there is no need to speak in lefty jargon.

Be conscious of what the policies are at your job and know your legal rights in the case that you may be fired. You need to make an assessment about the greatest contribution you can make to the movement. Sometimes that contribution may mean being closed, sometimes it will mean being very open. Make a conscious decision about the risks you are taking but at the same time don’t be afraid to take risks to speak up for what you believe in.

When others are brave enough to take a stand it opens up space for others to come out. If you are a part of a collective or organization this should be a collective discussion. Just as you would have a plan for different scenarios when planning a direct action, have an organizational plan for support, threats of violence, media strategy, and organizing in the case of high-profile red-baiting. Ultimately, we are working to shift the culture to a place where socialist politics can be talked about openly and where millions of people can openly identify as socialists.

Speak out against red baiting of others. Don’t leave them to be isolated. If you have been red-baited, develop a support network and people you can check-in with on a regular basis. Do not isolate yourself. Allow yourself space to process feelings that will come up from being red-baited. Develop a plan to move forward.

We need folks who can to stand up together and say yes we are socialists because we want a country with full quality employment, we want a country where everyone has access to quality health care, we want to live an a world that preserves our eco-systems instead of destroying them for a drill thrill. Red baiting could be an opportunity to show that we have the rational and moral argument. I stand for human rights, for true democracy, for equality and a healthy planet and if that makes me a red so be it.

Claire Tran likes underdog teams and will always root against the Lakers, the Yankees, and Capitalism. She is a member of Freedom Road Socialist Organization.

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