Politics & Law

What the Occupy movement can learn from the Tea Party

Lawrence Rosenthal

It’s important to look at the Occupy Movement in the context of the Tea Party movement.

Both were utterly unexpected and both were game-changers. The Tea Party emerged in the wake of the election of Barack Obama, when the left was dreaming of a second New Deal and the right was lamenting the death of conservatism. Both of those discourses are now faint memories, and the Tea Party has largely been the agent of those short shelf lives.

Occupy Wall Street emerged at the end of a convulsion over the national debt. As the national conversation pivoted from the “debt crisis” of this summer to “jobs, jobs, jobs,” the Occupy Movement has emerged to expand the discourse into, in effect, the structural problem that lay behind unemployment in large numbers, i.e., the systematic and galloping disproportion in national wealth and income: the 1% versus the 99%.

In their own ways, the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party were reactions to the same thing: what seems like the death knell of the “American dream”—a decent middle class livelihood; job, house; financial security—after the collapse of the American economy of September 2008.

The Tea Partiers had largely enjoyed a lifetime in the middle class. The financial crisis hit toward the end of their working lives. Their feeling was that the “American Dream” was being taken away from them, and they blamed “liberals” wanting to give what they had away to the “undeserving.”

The Occupy Movement is composed largely of people at the beginning of their working lives. Their feeling is that the “American Dream” is something they’ll never get.

In the wake of the fires and vandalism last night in Oakland, it’s clear the Occupy Movement has something to learn from the Tea Party if their mobilization is to have a continuing effect on American politics: The Movement needs to marginalize its extremists.

Remember the raucous Town Hall meetings on health care in the summer of 2009? Some showed up to those meetings armed. Others came with signs: “We come unarmed…this time.”

Those people have faded from the Tea Party. And they are certainly no longer its face.

The Tea Party’s border on its right with the extremist and militia right resembles the Occupy Movement’s border with its far left which is peopled by anarchists, neo-Communists and other “revolutionaries” who see in the rise of the Occupy Movement—as the far right saw in the nascent Tea Party—the vehicle they perennially seek to mobilize masses in the name of their ideology.

The typical openness of left movements leaves them generally more vulnerable to this problem than the Right. An example: A million people took to the streets in this country in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Yet, post-invasion, this movement was little heard from. In large part this was due to a hijacking by leftist ideologues. People who were appalled that their country would invade another country which had not lifted arms against it were treated to speeches about American imperialism generally, racism and the gamut of such ideology. If the Occupy Movement similarly loses its focus and becomes a sounding platform for a grab-bag of “anti-capitalism” and “anti-imperialism, ” it will similarly suffer the problem of leaving its real-world constituency behind.

The Left’s vulnerability to this problem is exacerbated in the Occupy movement by its very defining tactic: camping and eating and meeting in public spaces. Anybody can and will join in such emerging organs of participatory democracy as the Occupy Movement’s “general assemblies,” including many experienced at the rhetoric of escalation. To say nothing of experienced at using demonstrations as arenas for provocation.

To a large extent, the Tea Party resolved this problem by its participation in Republican Party politics. They successfully set themselves up as the conservative litmus test in what was already a quite conservative party, pushing the Republicans as a whole further to the Right. Their power was expressed in the primaries leading up to the 2010 elections, their radicalism in the 2011 Congress, and their role in the current Republican presidential primary campaign.

Democratic politicians are so far at pains to “understand” the “motivations” of the Occupy Movement. But in the climate of American opinion ushered in by the Tea Party, they are afraid of being “tarred” by association with what the Tea Party calls “the mob.” (Many do not appreciate how little the Tea Party sees distinctions between liberals and the far left in the best of times.)

From the other side, much of the Occupy Movement is afraid of collaboration with the Democrats. Many feel they had participated in a movement back in 2008—the movement to elect Barack Obama—only to feel abandoned by Obama, his strategy of bipartisanship and his advisors from Wall Street. It’s a tough constituency for the Democratic Party to win back.

Yesterday’s General Strike in Oakland brought out in high relief both the promise and the perils of the Occupy Movement. The well of sympathy is very deep for what the Occupy Movement stands for. The crisis of long-term unemployment, underwater mortgages, impossible student loans and the rest now crosses class, gender and race lines. Even Tea Partiers themselves might rethink their Us versus Them mentality in the face of a movement that says the Us is 99% of the population. But there is a limit to how much public support can be maintained for yesterday’s daytime success in the face of last night’s collision. Drawing the line between itself and the extremists who wish to exploit the movement, marginalizing the extreme, is a first order of business for the Occupy Movement. Just as it was for the Tea Party.

 

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Comments to "What the Occupy movement can learn from the Tea Party":
    • Jim

      Tea Party is a more a state of mind than an organization. You will find tea party people doing the grunt work to advance their cause in nearly every part of the USA. This work has already born some results, and will continue to in the future. We shall see if the Occupy Wall Street folk can do the same but they seem to be more about drama than actual work.

      [Report abuse]

    • John

      Many people are missing the point of the OWS.

      There is no political solution since many politicians on both sides of the aisle are well connected to the 1%. The suggestion that OWS will help the Democrats is ludicrous since the Democrats are just as much of the problem as the GOP. There is no way the OWS will achieve anything by supporting Democrats or even communicating with Democrats.

      The reality is that there isn’t much difference in the actions of either party, so it’s pointless to say one is better than the other. It’s also just as false to say that you’ll vote for Obama because he is less bad. Give me a break. He’s a virtual clone of George Bush with very minor exceptions.

      The Tea Party has money. The only thing OWS has is civil disobedience to inconvenience the 1%. The Democrats are completely undeserving of support from the OWS. I don’t see a way for OWS to succeed, but I didn’t think they would get this far with no money.

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    • J WEAVER

      I THINK THAT AMERICA HAS LOST IT’S STANDING AS “THE LAND OF OPPORTUNITY.” PEOPLE CANNOT GET
      A JOB, AND THE ONES THAT HAVE A JOB ARE STRUGGLING TO SURVIVE AND CANNOT SEE THEIR LIFES IMPROVING. ALL THAT IS EARNED, GOES FOR DEBTS AND BILLS. THE YOUNGER AMERICANS CANNOT SEE A BRIGHT, HAPPY FUTURE AHEAD…THEIR HOPES AND DREAMS REPLACED WITH DEPRESSION AND DESPAIR.
      THE MIDDLE CLASS IS DISAPPEARING, THE HOPES OF HOME OWNERSHIP IS NON EXISTENT, AND OUR SCHOOLS, STREETS, BRIDGES ARE OLD AND FALLING APART. THE IDEA OF GAINING AN EDUCATION AND IMPROVING ONES SELF HAS BECOME UNTRUE FOR SO MANY…UNEMPLOYMENT IS STAGGERING.

      THE BIBLE SAYS, “PEOPLE WITHOUT A VISION, PERISHES.” IT ALSO SAYS, “A HOUSE DIVIDED AGAINST ITSELF,
      CANNOT STAND.” AMERICA STANDS TO ONLY LOOSE WITH DIVISION….WE MUST WORK TOGETHER…WE MUST CARE ONCE AGAIN FOR OUR FELLOW AMERICANS. THE BIBLE SAYS, “TO WHOM MUCH IS GIVEN,
      MUCH IS REQUIRED.” WEALTH IS A TOOL FOR HELPING TO BUILD AND EVEN THE POOR, THE UNEMPLOYED
      CAN VOLUTEER FREE LABOR TO SHELTERS FOR THE HOMELESS, ANIMAL SHELTERS, CHURCHES, CLEANING
      COMMUNITIES, SCHOOLS. IF YOU OCCUPY IN “GOOD DEEDS” AND HELPING IN ALL THE RIGHT WAYS, THINGS WILL IMPROVE. WE NEED TO LOVE OUR NEIGHBOR, AS WE DO OURSELF. PLEASE FOLKS, DON’T TEAR DOWN AND DESTROY WHAT OUR PARENTS AND GRANDPARENTS BUILT.

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    • Anthony St. John

      Indeed, the Occupy movement should have a relatively easy time getting republicans thrown out of office considering the fact that GOP governors are disenfranchising 100s of 1000s of American citizens in states across America by eliminating our Right to Vote as fast as they can before the 2012 elections.

      With their actions in states and congress the republicans are:

      Overthrowing American Democracy,

      Destroying the middle class, forcing more and more of us to serve as indentured servants for the special interests who control virtually all republican politicians, and

      Accelerating out of poverty by destroying jobs in America so that their special interests can continue to export jobs and manufacturing to other countries to maximize their profits as fast as they can.

      If ever there was a time for all American citizens to fight back against the republican overthrow of American Democracy it is today.

      The Overthrow movement needs leaders like Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and George Washington to inspire Americans once again with a new Declaration of Independence to alter or to abolish the republican party that is destroying our Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness today.

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    • Publius

      Respectfully, you don’t seem to understand the goals of the occupy movement. Your suggestions would make a lot of sense if the goal of the movement happened to be political reform. It’s not. Tea partiers threw rallies and went home. Occupiers do what their name suggests: occupy. They don’t go home. Their goal isn’t to shift the Democratic party back to the Left to secure another New Deal or a better welfare state. Their goal is to take over territory and property. Their goal is stateless communization. The movement should be proud of what happened in Oakland. What happened in Oakland was the movement occupied a building in the hopes of turning it into a library and a dormitory. That’s what prompted the police (not the protesters) to initiate the violence. Of course, you would know that had you actually been there. Instead you were writing this article.

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    • Patrick

      Plenty of opinion here, in this “study” of the early stages of a growing movement, not so much for facts though.
      So the Occupy counterpart to the “Tea Party” militia element, are “anarchists”? What a hoot. Don’t bother explaining what you mean by any of these “bad” ideologies, only use them for their fearsome sound, whether or not it has an meaning or truth is beside the point, eh?
      Now, how many of this minor segment of disgruntled youth in Oakland — who took to the streets burning and smashing things late last night — identify with any of this above ideologies mentioned, or any ideology you could name, honestly?

      This analysis strikes me as vulgar and unnecessary. Telling a movement who they need point the finger at, choosing the boogeymen who need to be marginalized (“anarchists, neo-Communists and other “revolutionaries”” the Blog writer insists are all part of the problem.)

      To think that the movement must keep at the Center of politics in this Country is silly enough. To tell them in this authoritarian Father-Knows-Best kind of way, that they Must marginalize the “radicals” to gain further traction (and influence Progressive Dems? Is that the pitiful goal?!) is a horrid joke.
      This movement is already beyond such crank Bloggers, lazy academics and the cable news Opinion cycle.

      They need to shake off their dizzy, remote perspectives, or…’sink like a stone’, as one beatnik anarchist sang.
      Remember: “And don’t speak too soon
      For the wheel’s still in spin. . .”

      And I don’t believe in any Ism’s or violence at this point. I just don’t believe that whole fields of political thought should be disregarded, tossed out the window, because they appear “radical” in the major media paradigm.
      Unlike (among many other ways it’s unlike the “Tea Party”) this is a true grass roots movement. It Would be a tragedy to see it coopted by the pro-big business Dems to suit their interests.

      People seeing this through the fun house major media lens have no idea what a thoughtful, truly democratic grouping of people are involved in this struggle.
      The majority don’t need to be told who they should denounce. Everyone who is capable of thought would know that the actions last night in Oakland, by a small group of troublemakers (please, for the love of language, if not political thought, stop calling them “anarchists”,) are not expressive of the sentiments of the whole.

      This Blog serves nothing more than as another extension of the irresponsible, misinforming media that encourages little but small-minded bickering, superciliousness, complacency.

      Look outside your bubbles. Now is the time for us all to be a little humble and re-learn what real citizenship entails.

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    • Amy

      The Democratic party could gain millions of votes, if not confident votes, by actually DOING something for the OWS. Maybe a few things. Veto the tar sands pipeline. Stand up and tell the police all over the US that the First Amendment covers the Occupy Wall St and all the rest of the political protests. Push an amendment like wolf-pac.com — OK that was a joke…. Thanks for your article

      [Report abuse]

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