It may be a while before we learn whether the agreement to raise the nation's debt ceiling really is as awful as economists like Lawrence Summers fear, but one thing about it is certain. The Tea Party's remarkable victory reminds us that a radical splinter group can seize control of the issues and impose its will by threatening to wreck the system if it does not get its way.
That is a lesson that the left used to know back in the days of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements but seems to have forgotten since the presidential election of Barack Obama. The old distinction once drawn between mass social movements and political campaigns was lost in the emotional fervor aroused by the triumph of the first African-American president.
A lot of us acted as though Obama's election was an end in itself, rather than a means to accomplishing the change that his candidacy promised. But the election was never really about just getting Obama elected. It was about our ability to compel the new president and the Democratic majority in both houses of Congress to respond to our needs and our demands.
To do that, we still needed a movement, separate and apart from the president's political apparatus, that could support him when he did the right thing and pressure him when he didn't. As evangelical activist Jim Wallis recently wrote, "it was the robust activism of those independent progressive movements of the past that created the space for major reforms and made other presidencies memorable. That's because social change does not ultimately rest on who is in the White House, but a movement outside of Washington, D.C., that makes fundamental reforms possible."
We used to know that back in the day. In the 1960s we even acted on it, prodding the government into enacting civil rights laws, ending the Vietnam War and halting the military draft. None of those things would have happened without aggressive mass protest movements.
But the sad truth is that ever since Obama's election, the passion has been on the other side. We seem to have concluded that by electing Obama, we accomplished the goals of our movement, and that's all we needed to do.
And while we were resting on our laurels, the opposition became fired up. In a parody of mass movements of the past, they took to the streets, voted in blocks and even held a rally at the Lincoln Memorial on Martin Luther King's birthday under the leadership of Glenn Beck, who pronounced himself heir to the philosophy of nonviolence.
You can take the analogy too far. On one level, the Tea Party is no more than a front for big-money corporate interests such as the notorious Koch brothers and the hedge fund managers who shower contributions on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. These fat cats' interests are the ones truly served by the Tea Party's refusal to ask the wealthy to pay a far share of the costs of the commonweal.
But on another level, despite all the wrongheadedness of its reactionary populism, the Tea Party is an authentic mass movement with grassroots support and a set of (admittedly wacko) principles that its troops can rally around, remaining unified even in the face of harsh opposition to its nonnegotiable demands. Their relentless determination and refusal to compromise gives them enormous power.
You don't defeat a movement like that with conventional politics.
You beat it by building a movement of your own — one that's larger, more unified and uncompromising on principle, while it eschews the self-destructive brinkmanship the Tea Party espoused during the back-and-forth over raising the debt ceiling. The aim is to build a new America, not burn the old one to the ground. As Villanova professor Lara M. Brown wrote in the New York Times, "Democracy does not mean having your way. It only means having the opportunity to fight."
Among other things, such a movement would help translate into policy the view of the majority of Americans, who, poll after poll has shown, favor Obama's balanced approach to solving the nation's debt crisis over the Tea Party's no-new-revenues stance. It would fight hard to protect the most vulnerable people as we address needed reforms of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. It would look more like Dr. King's movement than Obama's campaign.
That seems to be the goal of such incipient activist groups as the American Dream Movement, founded by Van Jones, who was Obama's adviser on green jobs until he was forced out under criticism from right-wing pundits.
"We can learn many important lessons from the recent achievements of the libertarian, populist right," he wrote in February. "A popular outcry from the left could just as easily shatter the prevailing bipartisan consensus that America is suddenly a poor country that cannot possibly help its people meet our basic needs."
That's the right sentiment for the left to follow, although it remains to be seen whether a high-profile ex-White House figure like Jones is the right person to revive a progressive mass movement. The objective is not to help Obama; it's to help the people and get the country back on track.
We're not going to accomplish it as long as the populist right has cornered the market on passionate political protest. As the leaders of the old civil rights movement used to say, we need to organize, organize, organize. That's a lesson the Tea Party didn't forget, and we need to relearn and implement.
Jack White is a frequent contributor to The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.