Back in the spring, Markos Moulitsas penned a column for The Hill that explained the difference between our civil war with the Democratic Party (2002-2006) and the Tea Party civil war (2011-) that the Republicans are experiencing now. I think it’s fair to say that both movements sought to get their respective parties to better live out the meaning of their creed. Progressive online Democrats wanted the party to oppose stupid wars, defend the social safety net, stay strong on reproductive choice, and promote gay rights. Those were not new ideas. For the most part, those were ideas that the Democrats had traditionally supported but were getting squishy on in the face of concerted, aggressive attacks from the right. The Tea Party is a disparate movement that is hard to precisely describe, but their main concerns are government spending and the resulting debt. They want a smaller government, lower taxes, and less regulation. These are also not new ideas. They are principles that the Republican Party has claimed to stand for for a very long time.
The difference between online progressives and the Tea Party is, as Moulitsas points out, that we were driven by ideology but not controlled by it. We used data to support our positions when the data supported our positions, and we were willing to be patient when the data did not support our positions. We helped build campaigns against policies and candidates, but we were strategic about it. There were mistakes, as when MoveOn.org overreached in attacking General Petraeus, but they were few and far between.
We said that our positions would strengthen the party, and they did. The Tea Party doesn’t care about the Republican Party. All they care about is ideology. They don’t like the browning of America so they oppose immigration reform even though GOP strategists are telling them that opposing immigration reform will keep them locked out of the White House in perpetuity. They want huge budget cuts that Republican lawmakers are afraid to adopt because they are too unpopular.
Online progressives had the advantage that the policies we were promoting were more broadly popular than what the Tea Party is promoting, but we never pretended that Democratic politicians could advance our agenda by committing career suicide.