So you want to lead a left-wing Tea Party?Taylor Swift has some advice for you.
The future of the American left lies not with Elizabeth Warren nor Hillary Clinton, but with the online grassroots who are breaking out of their niches to make their voices heard. If established political forces want to engage them they should listen to some sharp digital strategy advice from none other than Taylor Swift.
We are upon the most wonderful time of the year. Everyone is buzzing with excitement and that magical electricity is in the air: Another presidential election season is nearly upon us. And the pundits, thought leaders, and that strange breed of person whose livelihood centers around Having Opinions on the Internet — are warming up with gossipy will-they-or-won’t they pieces.
During the last exciting presidential year (not even Mark Halperin and John Heilemann could make the 2012 election engaging), then-Senators Clinton and Obama announced their candidacies for the Democratic nomination in mid-January and early February 2007, respectively. It seems unlikely that we’ll be kicking off the primaries that early this time around, to the relief of many and the chagrin of a few, leaving us with more time for frenzied speculation.
Recently, chatter on the Democratic side has centered around Sen. Elizabeth Warren, though she has said may times she is not seeking the nomination (note the verb tense there). With Hillary Clinton’s candidacy being treated as a foregone conclusion, we now turn to Sen. Warren and her potential to invigorate the left wing of the Democratic party in a way that Clinton might not.
Many have explored the idea of a left-wing tea party and Warren’s potential to lead such a group. As Dana Milbank wrote in the Salt Lake Tribune:
Many progressives fear the Democratic Party will nominate Hillary Clinton, who is close to Wall Street and has hawkish foreign-policy views, just as conservatives were wary of John McCain in 2008. If Clinton loses to a Republican in 2016, the liberal anger could explode into an equivalent of what the tea party was in 2009 and 2010, and Democrats could be purged in primaries for being inadequately doctrinaire.
But Bill Sher posits in his recent piece for Politico Magazine that a leftist “tea party” would have difficulties wielding their influence due to inherent differences between the the Democratic and Republican parties:
…the Democratic base is far more open to compromise than the Republican base. In a post-election Pew poll, only 32 percent of Republican voters wanted the new Congress to work with Obama. But 52 percent of Democratic voters wanted Obama to work with the incoming Republican majority….
The lesson is: There are limits to how much confrontation the public will tolerate, a fact of political life that Tea Party Republicans still have difficulty accepting…
Playing politics fast and loose in the name of ideals hasn’t always worked out well for the Tea Party and the same dangers would exist for a hypothetical analogous left-wing group.
Apart from those topics that poll well and could inform the platform of new left-wing tea party — social security, corporate greed, and wage-focused issues (e.g., equal pay, wage stagnation) — it would be wise for the leader of this wing of the Democratic Party to engage existing groups of leftists and progressives who have already self-organized online. Really, who the leader of this group is matters far less than the group’s composition. From young people on Tumblr to black feminists on Twitter, these highly organized, politically active potential voters are disaffected with the system on the whole and ripe for mobilization.
We can speculate as to who would be best fit to lead a potential left-wing tea party, but the most important factor is the makeup of that party and finding ways to increase their turnout at the polls.
Effectively, an established contingent of voters already exists whose political proclivities fall far to the left of the mainstream Democratic Party. The Tea Party’s members skew older, male, better educated and are overwhelmingly white. These are people who reliably vote and to whom the media pays attention. The groups that could form a powerful core of a left-wing progressive movement do not have that demographic advantage. These are intersectional communities of people of color, women, LGBTQ individuals, and other marginalized groups who have formed strong and influential communities online.
A leftist populist movement would most easily succeed if it focused on those issues I mentioned above that poll so well. But to form a strong core of supporters who know how to organize, a left-wing movement needs to address issues of racism, misogyny, hetero- and cis-sexism in a concrete and genuine way. It will be difficult for a true leftist movement to succeed within a patriarchal, capitalist, white supremacist system but that doesn’t mean it can’t move the needle of American political spectrum further to the left.
Strong communities of women online know and recognize their influence. On Twitter, women of color are leading powerful conversations about race and gender and the problems of mainstream feminism. In 2013, Mikki Kendall (@karnythia) started the hashtag#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen that exploded over Twitter and sparked conversation around issues of racism, privilege, and exclusion in mainstream feminism. Since then, so-called “hashtag” feminism has provided online spaces for in-depth discussion for women of all backgrounds to talk about their experiences. I can’t possibly name them all here, but a large cohort of women of color — especially young women — have led these conversations and the media has picked up on them.
While social media cannot unravel the most persistent hierarchies that oppression maintains it does allow small voices to gain traction … We’ve created important conversations and content and have altered the shape of modern social justice by letting people know that small voices still matter.
And on the “about” page of her blog, Trudy maintains,
I identify as neither Republican (barf) nor Democrat (Zzz). I don’t use the labels “progressive” or “leftist” as identifiers for myself since progressives’ and leftists’ divestiture from anti-Blackness and misogynoir remains to be seen.
With more than 26,000 followers alone, Trudy’s voice is not small. Like thousands of other influential women online, Trudy and others are directing conversations about social issues most important to them. Harnessed together with other influential groups online, these individuals could play a significant role in pushing the mainstream Democratic party to the left if the leaders of that movement are willing to address the historical problems of progressivism Trudy brings up.
And on Tumblr, young people are tackling a host of social issues, so much so that those more vocal have been dubbed “social justice warriors”. Even those on Tumblr whose main interests and activity on the site have little to do with activism on the surface still engage around important social issues, creating original content and reblogging other users’ text, images, and videos. Many of these young people are of, or just nearly, voting age. They care about police and state violence, racism, homophobia, trans issues, health care, and so much else. They discuss these issues with an eye toward intersectionality and many of them will be eligible to vote in the next election. If organized properly, these young people would be a force to be reckoned with.
Being that these groups live online, the leaders of a left-wing movement will need to learn to meet these individuals where they are. It won’t be enough to slap together a Tumblr or brainstorm a hashtag. They’ll need to immerse themselves in the existing cultures of the platforms and the groups and learn to connect authentically and organize within the existing cultural structures while building trust and addressing important social issues. Taylor Swift, new to Tumblr, learned what she’d been missing out on quickly, and it would behove the leaders of the left to do the same.
A quick scan of Swift’s Tumblr shows she’s doing social media right. She’s engaging with fans on their platform, through their very platform-specific culture. She’s using their memes, speaking their language, and respecting the community they’ve built. But it’s not just about respect — it’s about participating in a community and working with the community to harness it’s power. In Swift’s case the end result is, hopefully, more album, merch, and concert ticket sales. For a left-wing movement, it’s motivating greater civic participation and pushing a set of issues into mainstream discussion, pulling the American center left after decades of steady movement to the right.
Though it doesn’t make for good gossipy blog posts, we should be less concerned with the leader of a left-wing movement within the Democratic Party and more concerned with the composition of that group. In the long run, the core of the movement will matter much more than a single figurehead. While Sen. Warren can easily rally around Wall Street corruption and crony capitalism run amok, those who wish to establish the left’s answer to the Tea Party must think more broadly about their strategy and consider who can contribute to the long-term health and influence of a left-wing movement and who has shown the ability to organize effectively online. These individuals bring an insightful, smart, powerful voice to social issues, and they could be the voice of a new American left.