To really match the right-wing tea party, the left would need more than just grassroots activism.
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Is 2018 the year of the tea party of the left? The midterms are still days away, but the question itself is a popular one, with some progressive insurgents who bested Democratic establishment figures appearing on the ballot in state and federal elections. In May, Max Berger wrote for Splinter News that a left-wing tea party had been “much slower to materialize than the conservative uprising of the right,” with mixed electoral results up to that point. Weeks later, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist, unseated Joe Crowley, one of the Democratic Party’s most powerful figures, and the conversation shifted again. “We’ve been here before. The tea party, like the progressive movement that produced Ocasio-Cortez, developed in opposition to the leadership of its own party,” wrote Geoffrey Kabaservice of the libertarian Niskanen Center. Representative Dan Lipinski, a conservative Democrat, later blamed a “tea party faction” for his own tough primary, which pitted him against a more progressive candidate, Marie Newman. (Lipinski, who opposes abortion rights, eventually won.)
If “tea party” describes any ideological, anti-establishment movement, then sure, there’s a tea party of the left. But that definition is a limited one, premised on the right-wing tea party’s self-description as an authentically populist movement. In fact, the tea party was largely Astroturf, bankrolled principally by Americans For Prosperity, a libertarian group. Progressives had no equivalent, and neither, really, did the center-left – perhaps until recently. A New York Times report suggests that the Hub Project may be able to do for the left what Americans for Prosperity did for small-government conservatives. The Washington, D.C.-based Hub Project “is on track to spend nearly $30 million since 2017 pressuring members of Congress in their districts,” through a number of affiliated organizations, according to the Times.
Run by Leslie Dach, a veteran of the Obama administration, and Arkadi Gerney, who previously worked for the Center for American Progress and for former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Hub Project’s origins can be traced to the spring of 2016, according to an earlier report from USA Today. “It’s the thing that has been missing in the movement,” Zach Silk, who advises Hub donor Nick Hanauer, told USA Today in 2017. “There hasn’t been a central coordinating organization that was able to do strategy, message, distribute it across the movement, and allow others to go out and focus on the winning and the hard organizing.”
The Times reported that “the great bulk” of the project’s funding comes from dark money — meaning that it doesn’t have to disclose certain donors. But USA Today named the American Federation of Teachers as a donor, along with the Wyss Foundation, which funds conservation causes. Websites for some front groups, including Keep Iowa Healthy and New Jersey for a Better Future, are thin on information, listing no staff or detailed platforms. The average voter would, upon visiting either website, perhaps understand that the groups generally oppose Republican attacks on the Affordable Care Act and support a higher minimum wage — but that’s probably it. A website for Tax March, another Hub Project affiliate, provides more details; the March describes itself as “a growing national movement” opposed to the Trump administration’s recent tax cuts, an opposition it intends to promote through “on-the-ground organizing nationwide, representation in town halls, and amplification on social media and in the press.”
The Times notes that the Hub Project is a much smaller-scale endeavor than Americans for Prosperity. But it still clearly shares DNA with the libertarian powerhouse, at least in terms of strategy; the Hub Project appears focused on pocketbook issues, and on framing the GOP as a clear and present danger to working Americans. That’s the tea party message, deployed against the same interests responsible for shifting both the GOP and the American political establishment more broadly to the far right.
Progressives need to accomplish a similar shift in order to realize their political goals. That means building power outside of the deep blue districts that will send democratic socialists like Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib to Congress — and that will require money. With Medicaid expansion polling well in the four red states set to vote on the issue next week, there’s clearly some political will for progressive reforms, even in states the Democratic Party had largely written off as GOP territory. There’s space for something like the Hub Project, in other words; some way for left-leaning donors to channel excess money to issue-specific groups. There are dumber strategies.
But progressives who welcome entities like the Hub Project will have to reckon with certain weaknesses. Like its conservative counterparts, the Hub Project appears reliant on wealthy donors and special interests. Granted, the American Federation of Teachers has little in common with the Koch brothers; the AFT is a union, and is thus ultimately responsible to its rank-and-file members. The Koch brothers, meanwhile, have no such check on their agenda. But as long as Hub depends on big donors, those donors will hold sway over the organization’s work. And as any democratic socialist candidate could explain, wealthy benefactors have class interests in conflict with those of working Americans.
The Kochs exemplify the risks of dependence on dark money. Though they denied formal ties to the Tea Party movement in 2010, David Koch founded Americans for Prosperity, the movement’s primary institutional engine, and was, until June, the chairman of the related Americans for Prosperity Foundation. In fact, the Kochs had poured obscenely high sums into libertarian causes and institutions for decades, creating fertile ground for tea-party candidates to come. But money doesn’t just buy influence; it buys control. As Donald Trump found out earlier this year, the Kochs think he needs them more than they need the president. Tea-party Republicans are beholden to the Kochs, not vice versa.
“The Koch brothers gave the money that founded [the tea party]. It’s like they put the seeds in the ground. Then the rainstorm comes, and the frogs come out of the mud — and they’re our candidates!” one Republican campaign consultant told The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer in 2010. Progressives need candidates, and for voters to hear left-wing messages. But they’ll have to decide which hands should plant the seeds.