The Coffee Party turned out to be decaf, and all those anti–Wall Street warriors are now otherwise occupied. Yet an authentic leftist counterpart to the Tea Party may finally be emerging. Is that good or bad for the Democrats? We’ll soon see.
The ultimatum delivered last week by California billionaire Tom Steyer to Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate, Representatvie Steve Lynch — disavow your support for the Keystone pipeline by “high noon” on Friday or face a punishing negative campaign — represents something more serious than the usual Democratic infighting. It signals the tentative emergence of a Tea Party–like leftist grassroots movement that could supercharge the Democratic party nationally, or rip it apart.
Steyer is a close ally of anti-fossil fuel warrior Bill McKibben, who’s just intervened against Lynch as well. Up to now, McKibben and his fast-growing organizational empire have stayed out of electoral politics. But the allied interventions of McKibben and Steyer in the Massachusetts Democratic primary to fill the Senate seat vacated by Secretary of State John Kerry appear to be a test run for a far more ambitious national electoral strategy.
McKibben recently explained why he’d discarded his practice of avoiding electoral politics and committed his group, 350.org, to fight for environmentalist Representative Ed Markey against Lynch in the Massachusetts primary. Given the failure of every other strategy, McKibben now sees a massive grassroots electoral movement as the last best hope for putting a stop to fossil-fuel use before the planet (supposedly) melts down.
McKibben is behind the fossil-fuel divestment campaign that’s swept over America’s college campuses in just the past few months. Campus sentiment now favors divestment, with arguments against the idea largely silenced. That super-politicized campus atmosphere has created a huge cadre of young activists ready to go to battle on climate issues. McKibben appears set to turn them loose on Keystone-loving Democratic politicians across the country.
Massachusetts is the test case, since that’s where the divestment movement is best organized, and where a huge student population has the strongest prospects of swaying a statewide election. Steyer, a billionaire climate activist, Democratic donor, and sometime Obama adviser, was drawn into the Massachusetts primary by Craig Altemose, a leader of the divestment movement in Massachusetts, and a close ally of McKibben. Steyer’s threatened grassroots campaign against Lynch will be based on college campuses and is sure to make use of McKibben’s rapidly expanding student network. Clearly, the wealthy Steyer and the well-organized McKibben are in this together.
Jamie Henn, a co-founder of McKibben’s group, 350.org, is now telling the 17 Democratic senators who voted to support the Keystone pipeline last week, “you’re next.” So far, Henn has signaled concrete plans to organize against Delaware Democratic Senators Tom Carper and Chris Coons, both of whom voted for Keystone last week.
The political implications are significant. The country still hasn’t woken up to the strength of the fossil-fuel divestment movement now sweeping over America’s increasingly politicized college campuses. Imagine a massive network of leftist college students and twenty-somethings pouring into local election contests on a regular basis. Although that’s been the dream of tenured radicals and community organizers from Barack Obama on down for decades, no one has yet accomplished it. Bill McKibben may be about to.
Nor would it end with Keystone. McKibben is determined to get America off of fossil fuels: “Fast. Not at a convenient pace, but fast.” That means an unending series of high-conflict political battles pitting the energy that powers our economy against radical environmentalism. That alone could polarize Democratic primaries for years to come.
But energy issues may be only the beginning. The ill-informed but deeply-entrenched campus consensus around the most alarmist understandings of global warming creates a way to draw student climate activists into a far wider leftist crusade. This appears to be what organizers have in mind. McKibben’s 350.org just issued a statement of “Solidarity with the Immigration Reform Movement,” for example. Many of the divestment campaign’s core organizers aim to use divestment as a gateway to a full-spectrum leftist crusade. An Occupy faction of the divestment movement is also eager to push it in the direction of more open anti-capitalism.
Occupy Wall Street shunned everyday politics, and the student divestment campaign has focused exclusively on global warming. Blend the two movements and turn them loose on Democratic politicians and you just might get the massive, grassroots leftist electoral force campus radicals have long dreamed of.
But is it good for the Democrats? That depends. A massive, student-led, green-tinged electoral movement could pull the Democrats and the country substantially to the left, solidifying and radicalizing the political allegiance of the millennial generation for decades to come.
On the other hand, a big electoral push by leftist students could rip the Democrats in two. Those 17 Democratic senators who voted to approve Keystone last week mostly represent non-coastal states where jobs easily trump climate change with voters. Attempts to punish congressional Democrats from non-coastal states for supporting fracking or projects like Keystone could backfire, handing Congress to the Republicans and tarnishing the image of Democrats with voters nationally.
So is the American Left on an epoch-making roll, or has its triumph merely set it up for overreach and a fall? If Lynch goes down in Massachusetts, Steyer and McKibben will likely take their grassroots, green electoral movement national, then we’ll find out. For better or worse, the long-awaited leftist counterpart of the Tea Party just might have arrived by then.