07/20/2010 01:32 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Progressives, Tea Parties and the Rise of We Generation Politics

Progressives and Tea Partiers have combined to transform America's We Generation politics. This change has been brewing for a while: in every aspect of American life people have slowly shed blind faith in institutions and taken on leadership roles within our communities.

The We Generation is a cultural phenomenon and a power shift. Credit old school anti-establishment fervor plus new media technology that democratizes politics and increases power (especially in primary elections) for the rise of America's We Generation. Nowhere is this more evident than in our politics: beyond left and right the fight is bottom-up versus top-down ranging from progressives quoting the old Hopi Indian prayer "we are the ones we have waited for" and tea partiers saying "there is no one tea party leader -- we are all leaders." For the visually inclined, the shape of We Generation politics looks far less like a spectrum, pyramid or upside-down triangle, and more like concentric circles.

Since the tea party has emerged as the latest element of the We Generation of 21st century American politics, largely in reaction to the ultimate success in We Generation politics -- the Obama campaign -- it is worth noting the similarities. The tea partiers are at a crossroads in 2010 like progressives were ten years ago. In 2000, Green translated to many Democrats as "Getting Republicans Elected Every November," with Ralph Nader being the prime example. After the Florida recount of 2000 and Iraq War buildup of 2002 some progressives stayed with Greens, some reclaimed the Paul Wellstone "Democratic wing of the Democratic party" as delegates and founders of progressive caucuses within state parties, a few won public office, many shaped politics through activism, and the most extreme were tied to mainstream Democratic leaders regardless of connection.

Substitute "progressive" for "tea party", "Republican" for "Democratic" -- that's where the tea party is today. Some tea partiers will be Ralph Naders of the right, helping to elect Democrats, some will join the "Republican wing of the Republican Party" and others will remain on the fringes, unpoliced or unrepentant. And yes, those on the fringes will be tied to mainstream leaders because defining people by extremist persons and causes is the oldest political shorthand. Just as future President Barack Obama was asked to "reject and denounce" Louis Farrakhan's unsolicited support and aspiring Speaker Nancy Pelosi took impeaching President Bush off the table, so Republicans will be called upon to reject and denounce radical tea party elements and the calls to impeach President Obama.

The wild card in We Generation politics is defining the "we" -- building coalitions. Discrete groups however powerful must still band together to reach pluralities and majorities. Coalitions formed around issues will have consensus from a variety of viewpoints (see the Main Street versus Wall Street debate, for example), which means that organizers can't simply look at party affiliation to predict voter sentiment. Indeed, the more we learn about each other the more personal We Generation politics will become. The good news is that we can't take each other for granted; the challenging news is that we must draw those concentric circles for each set of issues and invest in a heck of a lot more grassroots infrastructure to present multiple cases to the voters, especially independents who have declined the "we" of a political party identification.

We Generation politics reward candidates who can navigate those concentric circles of friendships, values, and issues. The skill set is not just rising to the top of a political hierarchy but on simultaneously working laterally with people who openly disagree with you. Building coalitions is the key to the 'we" -- build a big tent and "we" will come. Break your word and "we" will not be with you for long. Indeed, how candidates organize progressives to coexist with Democrats (and tea partiers with Republicans) may well determine the outcome of the 2010 and 2012 elections.