The popular uprising against potential military intervention in Syria has scrambled Washington's typical left-right politics. Just consider some scenes around the capital this week.
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., a cochairman of the Progressive Caucus, walked past an antiwar protest and got heckled for supporting air strikes, while tea-party Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, R-Mich., earned cheers for his opposition. Christopher Preble of the noninterventionist Cato Institute visited the usually hawkish Heritage Foundation and was shocked to hear his rival think-tankers "basically saying exactly what I would have said." And Democratic firebrand Alan Grayson of Florida teamed with House Republican colleagues to organize a guerrilla whipping operation.
"I can't remember when MoveOn and FreedomWorks were on the same side of anything," said Stephen Miles of the Win Without War coalition.
It's such a novel moment for Washington that some speculate we may finally be seeing the mythical populist coalition between anti-interventionist libertarians on the right and antiwar civil libertarians on the left that former Rep. Ron Paul and Ralph Nader have dreamed about for years. "I think it's totally real," said Becky Bond, the political director of Credo Mobile, one of the first liberal voices to oppose intervention in Syria. "As someone who was doing this kind of work in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, this feels very different. It's a real left-right coalition."
Indeed, Syria has tilted the political landscape 90 degrees, turning the familiar partisan divide into a vertical split between the leadership in both parties, which favors military intervention, and the parties' anti-interventionist grassroots bases. And it comes on the heels of a revival of "libertarian populism" on the right, alarm over civil liberties on the left, and a general war weariness among Americans of all stripes.
The tea party has been nearly unanimous in its opposition to strikes against Syria, and Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of FreedomWorks, a tea-party group, thinks it's more than just knee-jerk opposition to Obama. "It's a shift; it's a realignment," Kibbe said. On issues such as civil liberties, electronic surveillance, drones, and criminal-justice reform, "there's absolutely a convergence. We're building a new coalition."
"You're seeing coming to fruition a lot of the groundwork that was laid over several years," Miles said. It started in Iraq, with antiwar House Republicans such as Paul and North Carolina's Walter Jones, he said, and has materialized more recently in bipartisan legislation to trim defense spending.
One lawmaker who has tapped into that coalition is freshman Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, a Republican who has introduced bills with Democrats to legalize industrial hemp production and end mandatory minimum sentences. He told National Journal that the grassroots opposition to Syria was unlike anything he's seen since the populist furor over the bank bailouts in 2009. And it may be just the tip of the iceberg. "It's certainly not a one-off," Massie said. "I think there are a lot of opportunities going forward."
If you want a glimpse of what this coalition might look like, the July roll-call vote on the amendment to end National Security Agency bulk surveillance sponsored by Reps. Justin Amash, R-Mich., and John Conyers, D-Mich., is a good place to start. The measure earned 111 Democratic and 94 Republicans ayes and split the parties internally between more-hawkish leaders and the privacy-minded rank and file. The Washington Post's Greg Sargent compared the result to a whip count on Syria and found "striking" overlap.
The two sides often come to the same issue for completely different reasons. The National Rifle Association, for instance, recently joined the American Civil Liberties Union on a lawsuit challenging the NSA's surveillance programs. The NRA's concern is that surveillance could be used to create a national gun registry — a fear that critics dismiss as conspiratorial — but whatever the motive, the ACLU is happy for the support.
But while a constituency might be there, no movement now exists to channel the energy bubbling up from the grassroots into real political power. Instead, the populist wings of the Left and the Right tend to organize themselves in parallel and have little interest in joining forces — at least publicly. "When it comes to grassroots organizing, you see different groups coming together on certain votes," Kibbe said, "then going back to their respective camps when it comes time for politics."
Mark Meckler cofounded the Tea Party Patriots, the movement's largest umbrella group, but stepped down last year and joined with an unlikely ally, MoveOn.org founder Joan Blades, to facilitate "living-room conversations" among people with different political views. "There's just a whole litany of issues where the people are on the same side, but the politicians and the media are working very hard to keep us apart," Meckler said. He cited a trans-partisan skepticism of "bigness," in terms of both government and corporate power, and especially when they team up. "You can go far right or far left, and you come full circle."
Despite that convergence, Meckler said, it's hard for organizations that have to cater to bases — often by beating up on the other side — to cross the political divide. He notes that the Tea Party Patriots would sometimes work with liberal groups on issues where they had common ground and even share resources, but always through back channels.
Perhaps someone could come along and capture this bipartisan populist moment, but who? No one has credibility in both camps, which despise each other on all but a handful of issues.
And that's the problem. A movement made up of the extremes of both parties will, by definition, have a hard time finding middle ground. There's simply no reconciling populist liberals' desire to expand the welfare state with populist libertarians' demand to slash it. Unless they find more to agree upon, the populists of both parties will be stuck fighting from the same position, but facing opposite directions.