Netroots vs. Tea Party: Oppositons at Odds

I’m in transit from Los Angeles to Cape Town, and with a long layover in Paris, I’ve managed to push through an old opposition manual–from the far-left: Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics, the 2006 book by founder Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos.

It is striking how similar the left’s criticisms of the Democratic Party establishment were to the criticisms that conservatives make of the GOP today: the dependence on consultants, the constant selection of moderates who go on to lose, the poverty of ideas, the lag in information technology, the accommodation with the status quo.

There are, however, some telling differences. Armstrong and Moulitsas saw the main problem as the Democrats’ inability to win. They blamed the fractious nature of interest-group politics, and prescribed a network of left-wing institutions that could encourage different constituencies to put differences aside for the common good.

In doing do, Armstrong and Moulitsas were encouraging the left to do what they thought conservatives had done for several decades. They exaggerated both the degree of conservative coordination and success. Yet the Democrats improved upon the somewhat exaggerated model they envied, and that upgrade drives them today.

The Tea Party movement does not see its fate intertwined with that of the Republican Party. To the wise hands of the Beltway, that is a sign of its immaturity. But to today’s movement conservatives, GOP victory really is–rightly or wrongly–a secondary goal. More important: defending the GOP’s principles from its politicians.

The conservative movement within the Republican Party is not an interest group in the conventional sense, set on one area of narrow interest. Rather, it is focused on the general interest–issues such as debt and deficits, the structural power of the labor unions, the limits of the constitutional authority of the executive, and so forth.

Therefore the Tea Party movement would have little use for Crashing the Gate-style advice about the need to put differences aside for the sake of the Republican Party as a whole. Far more relevant, given the struggles of recent years, would be advice about recruiting conservative candidates who can also win general elections.

One final difference merits mention: Armstrong and Moulitsas wrote Crashing the Gate after Howard Dean had already taken over the Democratic National Committee, with the help of the new netroots. The Tea Party has never shown the same interest in winning within party institutions from which it is excluded. Perhaps it is time.