It has taken a while for the “experts” to acknowledge that the tea-party movement will be a major force in the upcoming election cycle. But they’re wrong to compare it with other short-term partisan swings of the political pendulum. Rather, the movement is the beginning of a long swing back toward constitutionally limited government. It is to limited government what the progressive movement has been to big government — and we tea partiers will more rapidly succeed if we learn the right lessons from the progressives.
To shortsighted observers, the tea-party movement is nothing more than a minor backlash to the unpopular initiatives of the Obama White House. They point to the fact that Americans have a well-established tendency to shy away from the party in power and gravitate toward the ideas of the minority party.
These observers take too short a view. The tea parties rose not merely in response to the policies of the Obama administration, but also in response to the century-long move toward big government that has been orchestrated and perpetrated by progressives. And, like the progressives of the last 100 years, we tea partiers will continue to build off of our momentum until every election in every election cycle features a candidate that shares our ideals.
Today, the Democratic party is overrun by far-left progressives such as Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank. That wasn’t always the case. Understanding how progressives transformed the Democratic party and its agenda can help tea partiers as they attempt to bridge the gap between short-term outrage and true political longevity.
HOW PROGRESSIVISM TOOK ROOT
American progressives can trace their roots back to the late 1800s. Early progressives argued that government should make life “fair” and “equal” by mandating higher wages and shorter hours for workers, by offering welfare, and by curing societal ills through initiatives such as alcohol prohibition. They called for centralized, top-down solutions to the problems of the day. They saw the force of government as a means by which to require everyone in society to behave as they deemed desirable. When campaigning, however, progressives used a bottom-up, grassroots approach in local elections. They attracted regular people and convinced them to donate time and money to their cause.
Much like the tea-party movement of today, the progressive movement of the 1910s was a force to be reckoned with. As they rose to prominence, however, progressives made one critical mistake that tea partiers must avoid. Instead of taking over one of the two major parties from within, they formed a new party and ran their own candidates. In 1912, the Progressive party was formed. Ex-president Theodore Roosevelt tried to reclaim his former position on the party’s ticket — but even though he was so popular he ended up on Mt. Rushmore, and even though the party had years of local-campaign experience, Roosevelt won only eight electoral votes. Woodrow Wilson won 435. Over the next decade, Progressives were able to get only one governor, one U.S. senator, and 13 House members elected. It’s safe to say that the new third party fell far short of expectations.
Although the Progressive party disbanded, its ideas remained. About a decade after the party’s collapse (subsequent parties used the same name but were even less successful), progressive leader Saul Alinsky began organizing like-minded individuals and training them to be more effective. Alinsky gained fame as a role model for the style of community organizing President Obama famously engaged in. Alinsky wanted to pressure policy makers into supporting the progressive agenda. Instead of attempting to form a new political party — a venture that had already proved to be ineffective — Alinsky decided that it would be best to take over an existing political structure from within. That structure was the Democratic party.