Not So Different After All? The Tea Party and the Progressive Grassroots

In today’s Morning Call, Scott Kraus takes a closer look at the Lehigh Valley’s Tea Party movement. What he found probably won’t surprise anyone. The Tea Party members he interviewed voted Republican before becoming involved in the Tea Party. They are concerned about government spending. And, like this Orlando Tea Party member, they are not fans of President Obama.

One person who might have been surprised last Tuesday night was Charlie Dent, who saw Mathew Benol, a Tea Party member who ran against him the primary, garner 17% of the vote. Benol had, by all accounts, no money to speak of and little organization. Given that, his performance was remarkable.

If you follow the Tea Party locally, you’ll know that they have an active email list and regular meetings, including book clubs discussing everything from Ayn Rand to the Federalist Papers to Saul Alinsky (!) and have even started a fledgling youth group. According to Kraus, several ran for spots as Republican Party Committee persons. In short, they are building an organization that they see as both running parallel to and intersecting with the Republican party.

This model isn’t unique, of course. Progressive groups like Democracy for America pioneered the use of Meetup. Organizing for America’s (OFA) local groups continue with varying levels of activity, and have a similarly close-but-wary relationship with the official Democratic party. In Bethlehem, the very strong OFA group opted to re-name itself Organizing for a Better Bethlehem (OFFAB) in order to maintain local control and identity. And, as with the Tea Party, at least one Bethlehem OFFAB leader ran for and won a slot as a Democratic Committee person in Lehigh County this year.

Both groups also struggle with questions of endorsements and which issues should take precedence given the limited capacity any grassroots group has for organizing.

Only time will tell if the passion and commitment of the local Tea Party and OFA movements will continue, and whether that passion will yield more primary challengers or coalesce behind establishment Republican and Democratic leaders.

Our Constitutional freedoms of speech and assembly have created a nation in which these two groups offering such different views of the world can use the same advocacy and organizing tools toward their goals. Both groups would probably agree that this is a very good thing.