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Rebuilding the American Dream: Why Starting a Liberal Antidote to the Tea Party Movement Isn't Going to be Easy

The Tea Partiers' sense of shared identity is crucial to their success. Who were those gathered this weekend to kick off Van Jones' new project?

The latest attempt to create a liberal antidote to a Tea Party movement that's caused such a stir in American politics in recent years (there have been others) is called, “Rebuilding the American Dream.” It's the brainchild of Van Jones, a visionary and charismatic progressive who, after being victimized by a Fox News-led smear campaign, was forced to resign his position as “green jobs czar” in the Obama administration

Jones partnered with dozens of groups, including, with its well developed list of Internet-savvy progressive activists and the infrastructure to coordinate hundreds of house parties nationwide that would kick off the new effort. On Sunday, I attended two of them in San Francisco, eager to see if liberals could inspire their own grassroots movement to push back against the right.

I had just finished reading veteran New York Times reporter Kate Zernicke's excellent book, Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America. As I munched on crackers and cheese at the first party, held in a nice, upper-middle-class home high in the hills overlooking the Bay, it quickly became apparent that building a progressive tea party will be no easy task.

The 15 people assembled to start a new movement were almost a mirror image of the Tea Partiers themselves. They skewed older – at 41, I was the youngest person in the room – and they were furious about what they saw happening in Washington. (Those at the second gathering, held in the Mission District, were, on average, a bit younger.) “I'm tired of just taking it,” said one participant, adding, “I'm ready to fight back.” Another said she was sickened by the fact that politicians appear to be increasingly “out of touch with the needs of ordinary American people,” and said that she had come to the party “because I want to feel empowered.”

In other words, they were desperate to “take their country back.” On its face, the only things that separated the group from your typical Tea Party get-together were that they knew Medicare is a government program and the fact that four of those in attendance were people of color.

But there were a number of differences between these activists and the Tea Partiers, and they don't portend well for the future of the movement.

After listening to a recorded greeting by Van Jones and Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change – another partner organization – we broke into small groups to vote on what we felt were the most important among a laundry list of issues.

The Tea Parties, in contrast, have an easy-to-bumpersticker narrative that the right has spent decades cultivating. Government is bad, liberals are undermining America and if the “free market” were just freed from the burden of pasty-faced bureaucrats' meddling, prosperity would return. They have focus-group tested but ultimately nebulous catch-phrases – “restoring the Constitution,” and returning to the views of the “founding fathers.” They don't rally around a laundry-list of wonky conservative policy proposals that could have been generated by the American Enterprise Institute (although they are quick to support those policies when called upon).

The Tea Partiers also inhabit a world where the news they get confirms their previously held beliefs, allowing them to discount any information that conflicts with that simple narrative as just so much “liberal media bias.” That view is reinforced daily by an activist conservative media – Fox News, conservative outlets like the Washington Times and the right-wing radio gab-fests – for which progressives have no counterpart. Those assembled mentioned watching shows like Thom Hartmann's RTV program and reading publications like AlterNet, but the dedicated progressive media simply lacks the same reach, and isn't as relentless at demonizing its ideological opponents.

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