is the author of "Fifteen Feet Beneath Manhattan"
Looking at the Democratic Party these days from a progressive perspective, one can't help but think of that old blues lyric: "You've been a good old wagon, but you've done broke down."
The broke-down wagon here is a Democratic Party that has moved away from its economic roots. It's now a party not only supported financially by Wall Street and other very rich backers, but intellectually supportive of those at the top as well, at the expense of traditional Democratic constituencies.
What can progressives do about this infuriating reality? Take some pages from the tea-party playbook, starting with a name change for progressives.
The tea party's own choice of a name was brilliant. "Tea party" has an iconic, heroic identification, evoking spunky individuals tweaking a bloated and corrupt state power. Many people who were angry about Washington acting as savior of Wall Street's prime movers, while not lifting a finger to save the assets and jobs of working-class individuals, felt a natural attraction to a movement with a name that captured their own anger and disgust.
The lesson for progressives is not to rebrand with a mythic name, but then betray the ideal, as the tea party did when it became a defender of interests it supposedly came into existence to oppose. No, the lesson is to take a name that not only evokes an appealing American icon, but to then honor it in deeds as well as name.
The obvious place to look is the hardworking and honest core of this country's economic and social systems: the middle class.
Democratic progressives rebranded as the "Middle-Class Party" would have no need to mask their true intentions. In spite of endless idiotic media reportage that puts progressives as far to the left politically as the tea party is to the right, on most economic issues progressive nostrums are actually favored by moderates in poll after poll.
Tea-party founders showed equal brilliance in their understanding of our two-party electoral process. They didn't create a new political party, knowing the system is rigged to make third-party victories highly unlikely. Rather, they opted to become a party within a party, the ideological engine of Republicans. The Middle-Class Party could do the same with Democrats.
Progressives should also note how the tea party exploited the gerrymandering of congressional districts by both Republicans and Democrats that tries to guarantee safe seats for one party or the other. In those cases, winning the party primary almost ensures a win in the general election.
By running its own candidates in safe Republican districts, or even just threatening to do so, tea-party philosophy invariably triumphed. Its candidates either won outright, or it forced opponents to move in its direction. Again, this is a perfect way for progressives to take control of the Democratic Party's agenda.
To really deserve a new middle-class moniker, however, progressives need to present an even more focused middle-class agenda. The obvious realm to offer aid and comfort to the middle class is through changes in a tax system that is so warped in favor of the very rich and the very largest corporations.
Start with the highly regressive payroll tax. Real reform here should involve making all income, unearned as well as earned, subject to this tax. Then, instead of using the added revenue generated for deficit reduction or bolstering a Social Security system decades from insolvency, use it to lower payroll tax rates. That would be a huge boost to middle-class taxpayers.
Progressives have lost faith in the self-proclaimed "centrist" Democratic Party and its conservative economic orientation. Progressively speaking, this party has done broke down. And the tea-party model offers a way to fix it.