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 19, 2014 -- Updated 1022 GMT (1822 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT