Politics & Policy

Progressive Lessons and the Tea-Party Takeover

Tea partiers should not form their own political party.

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.


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.

It was inevitable that Alinsky should have chosen the Democrats. Progressives, after all, had found their first true champion in Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His base helped him pass the New Deal and select Supreme Court justices who argued for a “living constitution” that evolved with the times. And electoral and legislative victories continued for big-government advocates as progressives mobilized and campaigned for the reelection of Democratic president Lyndon Johnson (who’d taken office following the assassination of John F. Kennedy). His plan to redistribute wealth through his “Great Society” was a cornerstone of the progressive agenda. With the New Deal and the Great Society, progressives succeeded in drastically expanding the size and scope of the federal government.

“Setbacks” such as the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the Republican Revolution of 1994 did not stop progressives. They quietly continued to work their way into every corner of the Democratic party. In the middle of Reagan’s presidency, for example, Democratic activist Ellen Malcolm formed the political action committee EMILY’s List. EMILY’s List describes itself as “a community of progressive Americans” who work to elect women who share their philosophy. Malcolm began the PAC with a group of 24 women in the basement of her home. The list immediately started to produce money, which was sent to candidates the women liked. A year later, EMILY’s List candidate Barbara Mikulski of Maryland became the first female Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate.

In 1991, almost a century after the progressive movement began, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described socialist, formed the Congressional Progressive Caucus along with five other House Democrats. One year later, EMILY’s List’s membership grew by more than 600 percent, and the group raised $10.2 million. Four more Democratic women were elected to the Senate along with 20 women to the House. Many of them joined the Progressive Caucus.

With the success of EMILY’s List came the founding of other progressive grassroots groups. One such group, MoveOn.org, became an early pioneer in effective online activism. By the 2004 election it had grown to almost 700,000 donating members who raised a total of $32 million to use against Republican candidates. Two years later, in the 2006 elections, progressive groups worked together through the Democratic party to take back control of Congress from the Republicans.

In a 2007 presidential debate, now–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton boldly proclaimed, “I consider myself a proud, modern, American progressive, and I think that’s the kind of philosophy and practice that we need to bring back to American politics.” She isn’t the only one. EMILY’s List–sponsored representative Nancy Pelosi is currently the speaker of the House. And in 2008, MoveOn.org endorsed and campaigned for a man it saw as a champion of progressive thought, Barack Obama.

Today, the largest caucus within the Democratic party is the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which has 83 members. Of the 20 standing committees in the United States House of Representatives, CPC members chair ten. These members include Rep. Barney Frank (Mass., House Financial Services Committee), Rep. George Miller (Calif., House Education and Labor Committee), Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif., House Energy and Commerce Committee), Rep. John Conyers (Mich., House Judiciary Committee), Rep. Charlie Rangel (N.Y., House Ways and Means Committee), and Rep. Louise Slaughter (N.Y., House Rules Committee).

In every branch of modern American government, progressives have a big say.


Over the past 100 years, progressives have worked tirelessly to shape the Democratic party in their own image. Once inside, they used their influence to increase the size of the federal government. Now, after idly watching for decades, fiscally responsible Americans are finally standing up and saying no more. But, to ensure that our movement is sustainable, tea partiers must be willing to learn from the lessons of the past. We must understand what has worked, what has failed, and why. For instance, some have suggested that we follow in the footsteps of the early progressives by forming our own national party — the Tea Party party — that runs its own candidates and has its own platform.

On the surface, this option is attractive. In reality, however, history has shown that creating a third party is a surefire way to slip into irrelevancy. Typically, the only third-party candidates that garner national recognition are eccentric billionaires on expensive ego trips. See Ross Perot. In today’s dollars, he spent almost $100 million of his own wealth on his campaign, but he ultimately received zero electoral-college votes in his 1992 bid for the presidency.

It is within — not outside of — the two parties that would-be third-party candidates are able to make the biggest difference. Dennis Kucinich is perhaps the best-known “progressive” in Congress, but he was not elected on the Progressive-party ticket. He’s a Democrat. And Ron Paul is the most successful libertarian in Congress, but he’s always been elected to public office as a Republican. When he ran for president on the Libertarian-party ticket, he lost.

That is why it is imperative that tea partiers bypass the misstep of the young progressive movement. Attempting to form a new party would be an enormous waste of time, energy, and resources. Instead, we must begin our own takeover of an existing political structure. Our vessel is the Republican party. And while it took progressives nearly a century to form their own congressional caucus, it has taken tea partiers little over a year. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.) has already formed the Congressional Tea Party Caucus, and congressmen are lining up to join. That is because the commonsense values that define the tea-party movement — such as the belief that government should not spend money it does not have — puts us in the broad middle of American politics. Republicans, if they covet the votes of our broad constituency, need to gravitate toward our values and our issues to get elected. Those who are serious about working with us will sign the “Contract from America” — a pledge to advocate individual liberty, limited government, and economic freedom. They will become the new majority in the Republican party. It is our responsibility both to get them elected and to hold their feet to the fire once they’re in office.

Progressives already have their political party; the time has come for tea partiers to take theirs.

– Matt Kibbe is president of the grassroots organization FreedomWorks. This article draws from the book Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto, which Mr. Kibbe wrote with Dick Armey.

Matt Kibbe — Mr. Kibbe is the president of the non-profit organization FreedomWorks and co-author, with Dick Armey, of Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto.


The Latest