WASHINGTON — Since President Donald Trump’s election, massive protests have sprung up around the country and factions of the Democratic party have demanded that elected officials obstruct any and all of the president’s nominees and policies.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because the story resembles that of how the tea party came to be, loathe though Democrats may be to admit it. And while they bristle at the comparison, the similarities are striking enough that some members of the party say they could stand to take a page out of the tea party’s playbook.
Especially appealing is the tea party’s bottom-up approach to organizing and challenging the status quo, leading some Democrats to push for a renewed grassroots effort within the party — one that appears to be occurring organically — and, potentially changes in leadership.
Most notably, one progressive group is threatening to primary more establishment Democrats, a move used with great effect by tea party groups for years. Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said that is what the public can expect to see from progressives in future elections.
"It's time for progressives and the grassroots to take matters into our own hands and craft the winning strategy," Green said, adding that progressives will not hesitate to "make an example" of some establishment Democrats — particularly those facing reelection in red states, who may be incentivized to vote with the Trump administration on some issues.
There are others on the same page.
There is a growing divide in the party between those who want to echo the tea party by aggressively opposing Republicans’ proposals in order to capitalize on the obvious energy among liberals in the wake of Trump’s inauguration and those who want to work with Republicans where they can to avoid bringing government to a screeching halt. The latter group fears earning the obstructionist label they've often pinned on the tea party.
But for years the party has been consistently losing ground on the local, state and federal levels, and some Democrats say enough is enough.
"What the tea party did to its credit is they organized. They went and got involved in school board elections, local select board elections, mayoral elections, so they organized at the local level, and that energy helped them win some successes a few years ago at the congressional and even senate level," Vermont Rep. Peter Welch told BuzzFeed News. "That’s essential for us in the Democratic party to get back to our roots.”
Others, including those in Democratic leadership, argue that their policies are in fact winning, pointing to Hillary Clinton’s popular vote victory as proof. "The policies that we have promoted and pursued were supported by more Americans in this last election than supported Donald Trump. Period,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said. “So...we don't have to be concerned our policies did not enjoy the majority support."
If substantial party changes do not end up coming from the top down, there are signs that it will still come from within. Rep. Ruben Gallego told BuzzFeed News that he expects and hopes there will be more aggression from Democrats on policy moving forward, marrying everyday government functions to the party’s election strategy.
“We do not, as Democrats, receive any credit for half-measures. And I think the half-measures that we’ve done on policies for the last eight years for President Obama’s tenure hasn’t been rewarded politically. So doing a middle-of-the-road for the sake of doing middle-of-the-road legislation and policy is not recognized and does not end up being politically fruitful," Gallego told BuzzFeed News.
"In no way should we be participating in anything that is just for the sake of for us to say that we are bipartisan. Those days are done."
South Carolina state Senator Vincent Sheheen, who ran his first failed bid for governor in 2010 against Nikki Haley, argued that now that Democrats have lost the White House, the "inner rot" of the party is more evident.
“I think that nationally the party is disconnected from real America, and I don’t think nationally the leadership has learned, and if it had, it would have changed," Sheheen said. "It’s an opportunity for the party to change now that the presidency is controlled by Republicans because before the problem for the party was really masked or hidden by the fact that a Democrat was the president."
Sheheen added that he thinks there is room for Democrats to learn from the tea party movement, particularly the idea that voters "lose faith" when the same people continue to be in charge.
Following the 2016 election, the top Democrats in Congress are now essentially the same: Sen. Chuck Schumer from New York and California Rep. Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi has been the top House Democrat since 2002 and Schumer, new to his position as Senate Minority Leader, has also long held leadership roles within the party. He was third in Senate leadership until the last Democratic leader, Harry Reid, retired at the end of 2016.
While Democrats have given progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders a seat at the table and opened up leadership opportunities in the House for some of the less-experienced politicians, only the chairmanship of Democratic National Committee, which is up for grabs, remains a seat where the party could see drastic change in leadership.
Even if Democratic elected officials are resistant to change, they may still be pulled further to the left by their base and peripheral organizations — like PCCC — in the vein of the ones the tea party used to fund and promote its brand.
Like many tea party groups early on in the movement, the PCCC has earned the ire of Washington Democrats, who often dismiss it as a loud voice that’s too focused on causing a fuss and raising money than actually succeeding in shifting policy or electing Democrats.
PCCC’s Green pointed to the Virginia gubernatorial primary later this year as a high-profile test. Former Rep. Tom Perriello, a one-term congressman, is running a populist campaign against a better-established opponent, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who has the backing of current Gov. Terry McAuliffe and both of the state's senators. The primary will take place in June.
"That's going to become a proxy battle versus the Democratic establishment and the new emboldened progressive movement within the Democratic party," Green said.
Green also put Democrats in red states on notice, saying that those with upcoming re-elections stand to lose if they do not vote against Trump's agenda and nominees.
Blue state Democrats may not escape the PCCC’s ire either. The group put out a statement criticizing Delaware Sen. Chris Coons for saying that Trump’s Supreme Court nominee should get a hearing and a vote in the Senate, calling on Democrats to call his office and let Coons know “this is NOT what Democratic backbone needs to look like.”
The PCCC did not respond to multiple requests for comment, however, on if they’d do the same to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whom the group has labeled their “North Star” in the past. Warren has been criticized by liberals on social media for voting for another Trump nominee — Ben Carson to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi insists there is “not a division” within the party between establishment Democrats who want to play ball with Republicans where they can and progressives who want push further to the left.
“Obviously we pledged to the American people a responsibility to find common ground with the Republicans as we did with President Bush,” Pelosi said at a press conference, adding that Democrats “stand ready” to do so with Republicans. “When we don’t find common ground, we’ll stand our ground. On the Affordable Care Act, we are standing our ground. But there’s no division, no.”
For very different reasons, like President Obama did for the tea party, President Trump has given liberals a cause to unite against. Democrats rush to point to the Women's March on Washington, one of the largest protests in DC's history, as a sign that their voters have been set in motion. Since the march, protesters have continued to gather across the country to rail against Trump and his administration.
“House Democrats will continue to discuss how we can harness the energy we saw on Saturday, and we are unified in representing the plurality of Americans who did not vote for Donald Trump and his agenda," Hoyer said in a statement to BuzzFeed News after the march took place.
Even before the inauguration and the march, constituents have been showing up to representatives' district offices and events to protest the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Tyler Law, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that they are working to harness and sustain that energy ahead of the 2018 elections.
"The DCCC is focused on engaging voters on the importance of the midterms, so that we get people to channel their energy and organizing abilities towards wins at the ballot box in 2018," Law said.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee did not respond to a request for comment.
"We’re not going to oppose something just because the name ‘Trump’ is on it," Schumer said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. "But when he proposes things that are against our values – and there are many different issues where that will be the case – then we will oppose him tooth and nail."
Many Democrats are game to stick to that strategy, in part because they fear the outcome of what a full-blown tea party movement of the left would bring.
"There is a strong temptation to take exactly the same path. But I would submit to you that that path got us to Donald Trump," Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro said in a BuzzFeed Brews interview. "I believe that we should resist his bad policies, we should strongly resist them, but whatever course we take, we can’t end up with a counterpart on the left like him."
Lissandra Villa is a politics reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Lissandra Villa at email@example.com.
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