The Reformers Everybody Ignored While Fussing Over the Tea Party

Juell Stewart wanders into the real grassroots of Obama-era national politics.

By Juell Stewart Nov 01, 2010

It’s hard to read anything about the upcoming November elections without hearing about the tea party’s antics. With the help of an extensive and powerful rightwing political and media network–most notably Fox News–the tea party movement has become a key player outside of the traditional power structure. And through the illusion of a "grassroots" call to action, they’ve successfully shaped national debate. But while the corporate media has been giving so much attention to fringe groups on the right, it’s been ignoring progressive movements that are similarly trying reshape electoral politics and hold elected officials in both parties accountable to the communities they represent. Here are a few of the biggest examples that should have been on the political media’s radar in 2010.

Beating Back the Banks

As foreclosures rose and employment numbers plummeted over the past two years, communities of color that were often the casualties of an unregulated financial system formed coalitions to fight for banking accountability and reform. They relied on their ability to channel frustrations into populist action, building a growing network of community groups to fight for economic and racial justice across the country.

When members of National People’s Action found out that Bank of America was responsible for one out of five home foreclosures in Chicago, its members took action and headed to the bank’s headquarters to demand they take responsibility for devastating communities. Thousands of people confronted the American Bankers Association at its October 2009 conference in an action dubbed the Showdown in Chicago. In late April, another visible–and very vocal–contingent of financial-sector reform advocates followed up with a Showdown on Wall Street. But we barely heard a peep from the mainstream media about either call for real regulation and accountability in the banking industry. (Photo: March on Wall Street, Creative Commons/pamhule)

Keeping the DREAM Alive

When Rigo Padilla was arrested in Chicago for a traffic violation in 2009, he faced deportation–back to Mexico, away from the only home he ever knew. Immigration reform organizations in Chicago rallied around Padilla and used a hybrid of traditional and online communication to highlight his story and shed light on the DREAM Act, which would create a path to citizenship through college or military service for undocumented youth. Through blog posts, Facebook groups and targeted outreach, Padilla’s supporters were able to get his story to The New York Times and USA Today. Eventually, the Department of Homeland Security granted him a stay of deportation, thanks to the tremendous outpour of grassroots support. "Traditional media allows us to get a message across; online activism allows us to take direct action," says Nora Garcia, development associate at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, a Chicago-based advocacy group. By combining the two methods of outreach, organizations were able to communicate to a wide audience about the broader issues surrounding immigration reform and the DREAM Act, while also targeting key activists to create visible results. 

Nationally, the DREAMers took to the streets and staged demonstrations, sit-ins and hunger strikes. A group of undocumented youth marched from Georgia to D.C. to dramatize their movement. Activists sat in lawmakers’ offices and blocked intersections in Los Angeles. And finally, in September, the won a Senate vote. Though the bill failed, activists have vowed to stand strong and keep up pressure on lawmakers. The DREAMers and their allies have shown what a youth-led movement can accomplish. (Photo: Creative Commons/Dream Activist/Carlos Amador)

Uniting a (Deliberately) Divided Nation

In early October, a coalition made up of over 400 national civil and human rights leaders and organizations–including everyone from political heavy hitters like the NAACP and Green for All to smaller, community-based groups–mobilized folks from around the country to their inaugural rally on the National Mall to demand immigration reform, better jobs, and equitable economic recovery in the month leading up to midterm elections. Over 175,000 people showed up; but while organizers hoped to use the event to steer the national political frame away from Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally, the political media remained focused on divisive rightwing antics. "Glenn Beck’s rally was intentionally provocative; he created a spectacle by playing on Martin Luther King’s March on Washington," says David Hill, a longtime labor organizer. "[Beck’s rally] fit into the narrative that the Tea Party has been building ever since they started–that they’re a grassroots movement that’s built a groundswell of support in America." (Photo: One Nation Rally, Creative Commons/SEIU International)

Creating Alternatives to Red vs. Blue

It’s often difficult for third parties to gain momentum in national elections. At the local level, however, a few parties have put up a serious fight to the two-party system. In Vermont, the Progressive Party has been wildly successful in sending representatives to their legislature, and had a big hand in sending Bernie Sanders to the U.S. House and eventually the Senate.

Originally started as a national response to the Vietnam War, the Peace and Freedom Party settled in California, promoting feminist and socialist ideals in the Golden State. The party developed beyond California by running Ralph Nader and Matt Gonzalez during the 2008 Iowa Primaries, but didn’t get enough votes to appear on the national ballot. Both the VPP and the PFP have developed relevance in their respective states.

The Working Families Party, meanwhile, has built a legacy in New York State electoral politics by employing fusion voting–a strategy in which multiple political parties can endorse the same candidate. Using this tactic allows voters to cast ballots in tight Democrat-Republican races while also producing a visible support base for progressive governing to which leaders can be held accountable. Since forming in 1998 with support from a coalition of labor unions, community-based organizations and progressive activists, the Working Families Party has expanded beyond the Empire State and into Connecticut, Oregon, Delaware, South Carolina and Vermont, backing national and local politicians that share the organization’s vision of affordable housing, living wages and quality healthcare for all Americans. Although WFP’s model can only be replicated in a handful of states because of strict ballot access laws, its form of coalition building has been successful enough to garner national attention–it even has Matt Damon’s support.