Friendly Fire Can Be Effective: Ask the Tea Party

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A Tea Party activist departs the room in protest as Jeb Bush takes the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor in Maryland February 27. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Brookings Institution site.

Last Saturday, August 8, Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator running to the left of Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, was confronted at a rally in Seattle by members of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The event followed a town hall meeting in Phoenix in July at which Sanders and fellow Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley were interrupted by activists seeking greater attention for racial justice issues.

Since then, a slew of articles have suggested that Black Lives Matter activists “err,” are getting it “ wrong” and even that they have been “ remarkably dumb” in targeting Bernie Sanders.

The gist of these criticisms is that Sanders is a tried-and-true progressive and longtime ally in the fight for racial justice. But criticizing your friends is good politics for political movements, and sometimes, for the criticized officials as well.

Take, for instance, the interactions between President Barack Obama and advocates for LGBT rights. As a candidate, Obama promised to be a “fierce ally” of the LGBT community. But when progress was deemed slow on the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT), and particularly when the Obama Justice Department opted to support the Defense of Marriage Act, LGBT advocates pulled no punches. Instead, they publicly criticized the president, shouted him down during a speech, boycotted one major Democratic fundraiser and attempted to disrupt another with bullhorns and loudspeakers.

Obama—with perhaps an unwelcome assist from Vice President Joe Biden—would soon change his stance. By 2011, the administration was overseeing the repeal of DADT and calling the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.

Still, LGBT activists continue to aggressively and publicly confront the president. Just the other day, a transgender activist heckled the president again—this time at a speech the president was giving in celebration of Pride month.

Or consider the activists who are perhaps the demographic and political opposite of Black Lives Matter: the Tea Party. Tea Party activists have shown no compunction about criticizing those they consider “Republicans In Name Only” (RINOs). At the slightest sign of weakness, Tea Party activists have been willing to publicly confront even stalwartly conservative Republicans. And in one way, Tea Partiers went much further by supporting alternative primary candidates.

This critique of the right from the right has shown a great deal of success. As my research has shown, the result has been a marked conservative shift in the Republican Party as a whole.

The same dynamic can now be seen in the Democratic Party on the issue of racial justice. All the major candidates are now talking much more about racism than they were just a few weeks ago.

Clinton met with Black Lives Matter protesters who had attempted to interrupt one of her campaign events. O’Malley released a new criminal justice reform platform. And the Sanders campaign has hired black criminal justice advocate Symone Sanders as its press secretary and issued a sweeping statement on racial justice.

Just as Obama can now point to gay rights as a part of his administration’s legacy, the Democratic presidential contenders have been given an opportunity to address systemic racial bias. For a candidate like Sanders, who polls far behind Clinton among African Americans, this is a meaningful chance to reach a large bloc of voters who may find his economic populism appealing, but are largely unfamiliar with the candidate.

As Saul Alinsky notably put it, “an effective means is automatically judged by the opposition as being unethical.” This does not imply, of course, that any means judged unethical is effective—but in this case, the tactic of challenging the Democratic presidential candidates on racial injustice has been a winning strategy.

Those activists who have been quick to criticize Black Lives Matter tactics might do better to learn from their example.

Vanessa Williamson is a fellow, governance studies at Brookings. She is the author, with Harvard professor Theda Skocpol, of The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.

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