Skip to main content

Who said the tea party was dead?

By Eric Liu
June 11, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
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
December 29, 2014 -- Updated 0430 GMT (1230 HKT)
Les Abend: Before we reach a conclusion on the outcome of AirAsia Flight QZ8501, it's important to understand that the details are far too limited to draw a parallel to Flight 370
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT