Is This the Left’s Answer to the ‘Tea Party’?

It isn’t, but the grassroots organizing experience in California’s traditionally conservative counties provide a powerful counter-example of progressive politics.

Charles Taylor Kerchner
Aug 6 · 6 min read

There are three earlier stories in this series. Links can be found at the bottom of this story.

In California, the 2018 midterm election was a watershed. Voters flipped seven U.S. House of Representatives seats from Red to Blue, and this occurred in territory that has been considered the Republican heartland.

Called the “Fishhook”, a set of counties beginning with Orange County, where GOP icon Dana Rohrabacher and three others lost what were once safe seats, extending down through San Diego and bowing back through what is known as the Inland Empire, long the seed bed for right-wing ideas. The shank of the Fishhook runs up through the great Central Valley where ag and oil have dominated politics and society for a century.

The Fishhook counties were picked as the locus of this story because they more resembled the rest of the country than do the Los Angeles or San Francisco metropolitan areas. The Fishhook is not liberal. But its grassroots politics provides both a counter-narrative to Trump’s America and a political process that differs from the conventional wisdom about how Democrats can operate in historically Red territory. It is not so much about moving toward the center as it is moving the center by organizing people who have been pushed to the sidelines of politics. It is about a new set of ideas that resonate with people’s lives.

It is not so much about moving toward the center as it is moving the center by organizing people who have been pushed to the sidelines of politics. It is about a new set of ideas that resonate with people’s lives.

Early on, it was asked if the grassroots activity in the Fishhook and elsewhere in California was the left’s answer to the Tea Party, which was spectacularly successful in moving the country to the right following the 2010 election. The answer is ‘no’, at least partly. The Tea Party created active citizenship, and so does the organizing in the Fishhook, but the similarity ends there. Fishhook organizers don’t have Fox News or what is referred to as a “national media elite” in more scholarly writing. Although they have financial support, there is nothing that approaches the concentrated wealth and wallets that Tea Party organizers enjoyed.

Instead, the progressive politics demonstrates two ideas that are so old, so traditional, that they are new again.

First, people want government that works, and works for them. They want government that helps them solve problems they face in daily life: clean water, good schools that respond to their children’s needs, safe streets, compassionate policing, and decent housing. Small-government talk fades when people are faced with cuts to things they want and need.

Second, building on lasting relationships creates something closer to early 20thCentury politics where Progressive Era good government organizations, suffragettes, and unionists organized around achieving unprecedented political access and power. These relationships were lasting, and they created a political infrastructure. Traditionally, the infrastructure was the political party itself, but increasingly the bulwark of politics sits just outside the party apparatus, pushing and nudging it, raising new ideas, forwarding candidates.

Unstuck Government

After 2005, California came back from its political right-wing political doldrums largely because people grew tired of inaction. They supported Jerry Brown’s return to the governorship and the permanent banishment of his ‘governor moonbeam’ image because they applauded his fiscal discipline, and they voted for Democrats who wanted to move forward rather than obstruct government.

Organizing around issues people care about builds bridges between people who call themselves progressives and those who disdain liberal labels. California is stereotyped as divided between the Blue coast and the Red inland areas because that’s how elections historically turned and because of differences in party registration, but the two parts of the state are much more like one another when one looks at the issues.

Migration is making the Fishhook areas look even more like the coastal areas of the state as the commuter belt spreads inland and people — particularly people of color — move in search of affordable housing. When these new residents are organized, the basis of local electoral power changes.

Camilla Chavez at the Dolores Huerta Foundation pointed me toward a survey undertaken by the Hass Institute comparing residents statewide with those in the Fishhook San Joaquin Valley counties. Respondents in both areas were guarded in their trust of state and federal governments, but a large majority in both areas thought that inequality was a major problem and that government should play a role in reducing it. Some 45% of respondents in the Valley and 46% statewide said that government should play a major role.

A huge majority in both areas agreed that it should be government’s responsibility to regulate industries that pollute the air or water. Large majorities in both areas agreed that unions improve the lives of working people and that upper income people and big businesses are not paying their fair share of taxes. Both in the San Joaquin Valley and statewide, 61% said that big corporations had too much influence in California politics.

A majority of respondents in both areas felt that California’s increasing racial and ethnic diversity made the state a better place to live, and only 14% in both the Valley and statewide said it made life worse. 74% of those in the San Joaquin Valley and 70% statewide said that immigrants strengthen our country because of hard work and talent. This sentiment bridged all ethnic groups. Large majorities agreed that speaking English was important to “being a true American.”

A 2019 poll by the Public Policy Institute of California reveals similar findings. While Californians increasingly register as Independents, they tend to vote Democratic and favor issues such as increased support for education and healthcare and the state’s positions on immigration and global warming. At the same time, Californians are only modestly liberal on social issues and taxation.

Activating New Voters

Government solving problems, helping their friends and neighbors, activates two groups of voters that the Tea Party shuns and which the small-government Republicans dismiss as unworthy: young people and people of color. Tapping into these rising demographics creates momentum and a freshness to organizing and civic participation and creates trust that direct action can be coupled with voting and produce results. In some ways it flips localism from a Republican idea to a progressive one.

Expanding civic participation pushes back on the Republican strategy of voter suppression. People who are already engaged will vote, and only relatively small increases in voter participation can swing elections in many jurisdictions. Local issue activity — through campaigns for clean water or safe streets for example — becomes what organizers call “a gateway” for participation in electoral politics.

In some ways it flips localism from a Republican idea to a progressive one.

California law and practice encourages voting rather than suppressing it, so we do not yet know what happens in states where voter suppression is actively practiced. But a locally organized electorate is more likely to resist voter repression or find ways to fight it. Even those who are not eligible to register and vote can be active residents, encouraging others to vote their values and issues. Attacks on voting also create a “simple justice” civil rights issue.

Personal relationships and policy solutions build momentum. For the most part, infrequent voters will not be attracted by conventional campaigns. One of the state’s veteran strategists told me that he wouldn’t put a dime into TV advertising, and at a panel discussion about the 2018 midterms a man rose from the audience waving an inch-and-a-half pile of flyers he had received in the mail over the last week. “I don’t pay any attention to them,” he said.

But building personal relationships that allow someone to be a trusted messenger takes time. Building bonds between people over issues speaks to the “revolutionary patience” school of organizing. Flipping a Red state or county may take a while. It’s necessary to think beyond a single campaign cycle and to consider the value of institution building.

Charles Taylor Kerchner

Written by

An emeritus professor at Claremont Graduate University writing about politics, policy, and education

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