© 2024 South Carolina Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What The Left Can Learn From The Tea Party


Democrats are grappling with an important question that will define their party for years to come - whether to find places to work with President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress or to say no at every turn. So far it looks like protest is winning out against compromise, with rallies and marches taking place around the country.

To some people, all this has a familiar ring. It might remind you of a grassroots conservative movement back in 2009. We reached out to Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist and early Tea Party movement organizer.

Thanks so much for being with us.

BRENDAN STEINHAUSER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: There's a lot of talk these days about how the Democratic opposition to President Donald Trump is reflecting some of what we saw in the Tea Party movement. Do you see it that way?

STEINHAUSER: I do see reflections of the Tea Party. You know, what's interesting is that we in the Tea Party really borrowed some of the street protests and organizing from the left, with mass rallies, with getting out in the streets, with signs. But the thing that we did also that I see the left borrowing from us is actually taking that activity and turning it into direct legislative contact in the form of thousands of phone calls and emails and posts on social media.

MARTIN: So it's not enough to just make signs, march in the streets.

STEINHAUSER: That's right. In fact, I remember one of the big rallies we had in Washington at the Capitol. There were thousands of people there. And I was on the microphone, and I said, now, everyone, head over to these buildings on the left and on the right of the Capitol dome and go see your senators. Go see your representatives, and tell them to vote no on Obamacare.

And so really encouraging folks to go from the protesting into the offices to sit down with legislators and their staff really is that next step that actually has the biggest impact on public policy.

MARTIN: Do you think Democrats are as powerless now as Republicans were in 2008, when the Tea Party started to get a little bit of traction?

STEINHAUSER: I do. You look at the election of 2008, and Republicans and conservatives were very much out of power. They were watching this new president come in and propose a trillion dollars in new spending. And so there really wasn't a good alternative to going out and protesting. And so that was the way that we were able to galvanize the opposition. And it took about a year and a half to really turn that mass movement into a political force into the elections of 2010, where Republicans and conservatives were very successful.

MARTIN: When you look at what the Democrats are doing now, if you were in charge of building an opposition in this moment, how would you adjust what they're doing?

STEINHAUSER: I think one of the biggest mistakes they can make is continuing to put people from Hollywood, like Lena Dunham, on the stage, people who offend middle America, people who don't necessarily represent a broad swath of voters.

I think if they focus on economic issues, if they rediscover federalism and the Tenth Amendment and make an argument about taking power from Washington and giving it back to the states - so that California can be liberal or progressive, Texas can be conservative - I think they can have a lot of success with voters who are in the middle, Independent voters and maybe even some conservatives out there.

MARTIN: Can being the party of no backfire?

STEINHAUSER: What's interesting is that when we were in opposition to bigger government and to both political parties, you know, we had the most unity. Once we got into what are we for - which mattered just as much - it did start to break the coalition down a little bit.

But I do think that if you lay out what you're against and you focus on that for, you know, a year or two, you can sort of build the will. And you can build the effort to have people then go and elect members of Congress and senators and folks and the state legislators who they support, even if the movement leaders don't necessarily see eye to eye on everything.

MARTIN: But it's interesting everybody talks about the negativity around Washington. But what you're saying - no is useful as a way to build a movement in the beginning.

STEINHAUSER: Absolutely. I think that in order to keep the movement unified, you have to start out by saying what you're opposed to. That's what basically brings in a lot of different people who have different views on different issues, but they're all unified in what their opposition is. And so I think that's the first step.

Also, it's unfortunate, but people in general don't get as excited or motivated about the things that they're for. But they certainly take to the streets when it comes to what they're against.

MARTIN: Brendan Steinhauser is a Republican strategist. We talked to him from Austin.

Brendan, thanks so much.

STEINHAUSER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.