Skip to main content

Who said the tea party was dead?

By Eric Liu
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Wed June 11, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eric Liu: GOP establishment seemed to be reasserting itself, then Eric Cantor loses
  • Liu says tea party wins even when it loses, forcing GOP candidates further to the right
  • Liu: Tea party uses every strategy to give a minority of the minority party outsize clout
  • Nobody better at democracy, and other groups can learn from tea party, he says

Editor's note: Eric Liu is the founder of Citizen University and the author of several books, including "The Gardens of Democracy" and "The Accidental Asian." He was a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. Follow him on Twitter @ericpliu. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Throughout this primary election season, as tea party candidates in Kentucky, Georgia, Texas and elsewhere faltered, a media narrative started taking shape that the Republican establishment was taking back control of the party.

Then, stunningly, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost Tuesday night.

Some will insist that this historic upset was simply a fluke. But the reality is that the "Establishment Strikes Back" storyline has been wrong all along. The tea party has in fact been on a roll ever since it burst on the scene. Its success needs to be properly understood -- then emulated by its foes in both parties.

Eric Liu
Eric Liu

The tea party is resilient partly because for many in the movement, winning is not primarily about election results. Even when it loses primaries, it wins -- by forcing the winners so far to the right that they would be unrecognizable by establishment Republicans of a generation ago. And when tea party candidates win primaries outright, as David Brat did Tuesday night in Virginia, they of course directly push their party rightward.

When it comes to actual policymaking and governing, the same dynamic applies. In cases where the tea party didn't get what it wanted, as in the debt and default crisis, it still succeeded in redefining the frame of the possible. In the House it can always veto proposals such as immigration reform that have cleared the Senate.

In short: The tea party wins when it loses and wins when it wins.

This is a pretty good setup. And it's not an accident. I disagree profoundly with the tea party's policy agenda. Yet I also have come to see that nobody is better at democracy today than the tea party.

Cantor's electoral autopsy will surely describe how Brat's campaign, out-funded and out-endorsed, was never out-organized. Tea partyers win elections by old-fashioned person-to-person proselytizing, plenty of new-media mobilizing and a fair amount of time-tested fear-mongering. They create a sense of urgency, and they convert that urgency into turnout. After the election, they continue to meet, rally and apply effective pressure on elected officials.

Even victor was surprised he beat Cantor
What impact does tea party have?

Yes, it's not all grass roots, and pools of big money and the power of Fox News have much to do with tea party clout. But when you spend time with activists, you come to appreciate that there is no secret playbook at work. At the core is a network of citizens who've decided to deploy the full range of tools available. They show up. They work the phones. They work the media. They elect people. They un-elect people.

That full-range deployment has given a minority of the nation's minority party truly outsize voice in American politics. Consider immigration. Just Tuesday morning came reports of a new poll showing majorities in both parties supporting a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. By nightfall, with Brat's uncompromising stance against such a pathway, the new conventional wisdom was that immigration reform is now dead.

Never mind that Lindsey Graham, who shaped the Senate immigration bill that included a pathway to citizenship, handily defeated his primary challengers. Never mind that anything's possible in a lame-duck session with a House leadership in flux. Now many in the Beltway will simply say immigration is untouchable because the tea party wants it that way and if the tea party can beat Cantor it can beat anyone.

Cantor 'earthquake' rattles Capitol Hill

You can decry the tea party's ability to create such self-fulfilling perceptions, but you cannot dismiss it. In fact, activists along every other point of the political spectrum should study the tea party more closely and learn just how it endows relatively small blocs of voters with the force of much larger blocs.

What if the progressive left, centrist Democrats and moderate Republicans all organized and mobilized their people as effectively as the tea party has? What if citizens of every stripe, even without access to big campaign cash, learned to activate people power? What if leaders of all leanings thought harder about how to wake up their base and get them actually to vote? It may be harder to do that in the middle than on the extremes, but it's not impossible.

The political scientist E.E. Schattschneider once wrote, "All that is necessary to produce the most painless revolution in history, the first revolution ever legalized and legitimatized in advance, is to have a sufficient number of people do something not much more difficult than to walk across the street on election day."

As Cantor can now attest, the activists of the tea party understand this. They count votes and make votes count. Want to join them? Learn from them. Want to beat them? Learn from them. Either way, it's how we'll make a new democracy.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT