Gil Smart

A few days before House Majority Leader Eric Cantor got ambushed last week by the tea party in Virginia’s GOP primary, the writer David Sirota published a piece in Politico Magazine titled, “If the Left had a Tea Party ...

I nearly fell off my chair laughing at that one.

The left will never have a Tea Party.

Not that it couldn’t, or shouldn’t. Sirota’s piece profiles New York’s “Working Families Party,” which, according to its website, “is focused on tackling the political, economic, and educational inequality that deprive working and middle class families of opportunity.”

The party was beginning to stalk (not literally) Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who, feeling vulnerable, reversed his opposition to local municipalities unilaterally raising their minimum wage, and turned him (publicly, at least) against the Republican state Senate leadership “he had long embraced in a tacit alliance against the left,” according to Politico.

This is what a tea party left would look like — focused like a laser on economic issues that affect the broad, struggling middle and lower-middle classes. And maybe something like this could pick up steam — in New York, in Pennsylvania and beyond. Lord knows there’s a market for it.

But I don’t trust that it would actually ever go anywhere, as the tea party has. For the tea party right — I’ll give them this — has the ability to focus on what I’ll call the movement’s core values without getting too distracted by social issues.

That’s to say, while some tea partiers may identify themselves as Christian conservatives, most tea partiers I’ve known (you’d be surprised) were never willing to die on the hill of opposition to gay marriage. Even abortion is not a core motivating factor for most tea partiers, at least in my experience. Sure, they’ll say all the right (or right-wing) things, but when push comes to shove — it’s not a core concern of the movement.

They are willing to shunt social issues aside and focus on the things that really matter to them. And that focus makes them politically lethal. They know what their real values are, they vote them. And as a result, they have power.

This, again, could never happen on the left.

Because the left is far too easily distracted by social issues. However far a “Working Families Party” might advance, at some point “the left” will say — but what about trans rights? What about pervasive cultural misogyny or white male privilege? What about “trigger warnings,” what about identity politics in general?

And a Working Families Party that declares that these aren’t the core concerns would then find itself in the cross hairs, and ultimately rent asunder.

This is why, for all the right-wing bloviating about the nefarious liberals, the left mostly thrashes about, impotent. It gets hijacked, and then neutered, by identity politics. Identity politics become the raison d’être of the movement — and that’s how you get Reagan Democrats. That’s how you alienate the very people you need to build a movement and turn it into a legitimate threat to the establishment.

I would like to think a Working Families Party would or could have enough resonance with actual working families that it might fend off the rhetorical attacks from those to the cultural left of it. But I’m not certain that could ever be the case. Because, as someone nominally on the left, I’ve seen how this works; and in recent weeks in particular, I’ve become increasingly disenchanted with the relentless focus on identity politics, on what ultimately amounts to niche politics.

And the fury among those offended when you dare to suggest that pocketbook issues ought to take precedence can be stunning.

A successful Working Families Party would have to overcome all that, would have to overcome putative “allies” trying to destroy it. The equivalent on the right would be staunch pro-lifers doing everything they could to undermine the tea party. You don’t see that happening.

And that’s why the right can have a tea party — and the left can’t.

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Gil Smart is a Lancaster Newspapers investigative reporter and columnist. He also blogs about politics at Smart Remarks. He can be reached at or (717) 291-8817. You can also follow @GilSmart on Twitter.