"We do not touch social issues, typically speaking, because once we do that's when you lose people, divide people." So announced Amy Kremer from the stage last month's Tea Party Convention.
Kremer knows well the fragility of her kinda-movement, with all of its internecine squabbles: She's the organizer of Tea Party Express -- a nation-wide anti-tax bus tour -- even while being sued by Tea Party Patriots, of which she was a former board member.
The power of the Tea Party as such -- if such a thing exists "as such" -- has been overblown, but the attention it's getting is indeed indicative of a broader populist angst of which incumbents surely must take heed.
The funders of the Tea Party are of the intransigent far right, but it's imprudent to dismiss all of the popular consternation -- and every person who's attended a rally or who voted for Ron Paul -- as essentially reactionary. Most tellingly, polls consistently show a plurality of independents holding a favorable opinion of the movement's aims. (As a former Green, I've had quite a few conversations with people who voted for Nader in 2000 or 2004, and then Paul in 2008. While I think they were misguided, those votes were expressing something very different than the Left's caricature of the underpinnings of contemporary popular angst.)
Last month's convention was notable for how much time was devoted to consideration of how to hold together the strong-willed, and frequently headstrong, members of the movement, and maintain surprisingly high levels of legitimacy in the minds of rank-and-file voters. It was rife with lofty platitudes about agreeing to disagree, and pledges to abide by paraphrases of Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of another conservative."
All the more evidence that Democrats can and should break up the party by taking aggressive stands on those issues that'll pry loose social libertarians. And foremost, we should quit locking people up for no good reason.
While most self-identifying right and center-right populists are anti-tax and anti-stimulus (at least until they reap the benefits) many want the government not just out of their pocket books, but out of their social lives altogether. Many prioritize the latter -- concerns to which Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to respond.
We should exploit the opening by passing medical marijuana laws, and decriminalizing marijuana more generally, rolling back blue laws, ceasing to imprison people for sex work, and reducing other forms of social paternalism. (In my state of Rhode Island, this should have meant refusing even to criminalize prostitution, as we did last year after 30 years of legalization; other states are sure to have their own idiosyncrasies.)
Like good Democrats, we'd be doing right by some of our most disenfranchised constituents -- with the bonus that in the process, we'd gain esteem with the civil-libertarian strain that runs at varying depth through the blocs of self-identifying independents and conservatives, and even members of the Tea Party. With more than 2.3 million people in prison at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars per head, and millions more moving through the courts each year, we'd be able to increase our claim to the mantle of fiscal responsibility.
Medical marijuana ought to be a given: With a January ABC/Washington Post poll showing nearly 90% of liberals and moderates in support, and nearly 7 out of 10 self-identifying conservatives, there's much for Democrats to gain, and very little to lose. At almost as high a rate -- upwards of 75% -- Americans oppose jailing those arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
There wasn't much scientific polling done on last year's criminalization of prostitution in Rhode Island, but a consistent two thirds of the strongly anti-tax, anti-union, anti-Democratic sorts who tend to answer polls on the Providence Journal's website were against making prostitution illegal -- and even more people opposed incarcerating people for it. As I go campaigning this summer, my stand against putting women in prison will be the first thing I mention to any voter who owns a "Don't Tread on Me" doormat.
Unfortunately, many Democrats seem to be taking all the wrong lessons from the Coakley-Brown debacle in Massachusetts: They're in retreat -- even more risk-averse than usual, and refusing to take stands on (seemingly) controversial issues. But Coakley didn't lose because she wasn't cautious enough. Democrats need to show voters that we have some real fight, and in the realm of criminal justice reform, we can do so by standing by our ideals, even while tapping into the pervasive populist anger and blunting the electoral impact of the right come November.