Where OWS and the Tea Party are coming from

Two very different movements with common roots in the failing center

Topics: Occupy Wall Street, Tea Party, ,

Where OWS and the Tea Party are coming from

One month into the Occupy Wall Street protests, many are asking if this new movement is just a “left-wing Tea Party.”

Definitely not. This is not a party, like the Tea Party, that seeks to directly shape the policy and electoral process. Because it is explicitly leaderless, it is difficult to imagine a Michele Bachmann or Eric Cantor emerging as a standard bearer of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Given their reliance on Wall Street money, as well as radical demands from many protesters, the Democrats will find it almost impossible to channel “the 99%” into an electoral tidal wave next year, the way the Republicans rode the Tea Party to victory in 2010.

But that does not mean comparisons to the Tea Party should be dismissed. There are striking parallels between the two movements when viewed through the lenses of politics, society and history.

Some similarities are obvious. The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street both oppose the bailouts of the banks orchestrated by the two parties in Washington. The two movements are thick with people who feel they have little say in the political process. And supporters on each side think the middle-class “American dream” is nearly extinct.

As social forces, the resemblance deepens. I have interviewed protesters at Zuccotti Park and Tea Party members who discuss their involvement in comparable terms. They speak of a personal “awakening,” of finding inspiration in a gathering of kindred spirits, and of not having been political before. In fact, both movements thrive on bringing new people into politics. Each creates a new notion of “the people.”

The Tea Party’s rallying cries include “we the people” and “take America back.” Its vision of the people is of self-reliant, industrious and frugal Americans who through moral example and political force would return this country to the greatness pioneered by the Founding Fathers. The Occupy Wall Street movement is inchoate, but already chants of “the 99%” offer another version of the people: those whose dreams and aspirations have been squashed by the greedy and power-hungry, but who can revive fairness and justice as national ideals.

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For both, the legitimate people is complemented by the illegitimate other. For the Tea Party, the other is embodied by liberals, unions, illegal immigrants, Muslims, welfare recipients and Obama. For the Occupy Wall Street movement, the others are the 1 percent, the catch-all for bankers, corporate executives, the super-rich and their political allies who have an iron grip on the economy and politics.

Another similarity is that the success of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street is owed to their vagueness, at least initially. Each has united disparate coalitions under their respective banners. The Tea Party’s historic references appeal to people who feel that social and political changes in the last few decades have made their country unrecognizable. It unites those who oppose unions and immigration, favor small government (apart from the sprawling military-security apparatus), want a return to the gold standard, cuts in social spending, unlimited gun rights and less regulation of business and markets. The common theme is that parasitical and selfish groups have sapped America’s wealth and power.

Likewise, the Occupy Wall Street movement has been criticized for a lack of demands, but when you speak to supporters they have no lack of ideas: better-paying jobs, government-funded jobs, single-payer healthcare, debt forgiveness, a moratorium on home foreclosures, cutting defense spending, saving Social Security and Medicare, strengthening unions. One secret of its success, analogous to the Tea Party’s obsession with the undeserving, is that it allows many groups and individuals to see their demands as equivalent to everyone else’s because the opponent is the same: Wall Street.

Most Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street partisans feel something has gone fundamentally wrong in America, and they are united in envisioning a different type of society. It’s a mistake to reduce either movement to politics or policy. Each is motivated by values and idealized ways of relating to one another. But this is where the differences become stark.

The Tea Party embraces heroic, rugged individualism where freedom and liberty are best secured through the free market. In reality, though, the Tea Party ideology often evokes an exurban nostalgia for white supremacy. Tea Party members rage against deficits run up by an African-American president with an anger never directed at his deficit-prone predecessor. Their disdain for government subsidies rarely extends to the interest deduction for homeowners, funding for the interstate highway system, crop support payments  and other state supports for a suburban or rural lifestyle.

On the other hand, Occupy Wall Street believes in a more collective economy and decision-making process, as seen in the General Assembly and free exchange of goods in Zuccotti Park and other occupation sites. Activists think increasing access to public goods — starting with the public squares themselves — is the way to achieve social harmony.

These radically divergent worldviews are matched by distinct demographics. The average member of the Tea Party is in his or her 50s, whereas the typical Wall Street occupier looks to be a recent college graduate. This probably explains why the two also have different relations to history. The Tea Party romanticizes the American Revolution, while Occupy Wall Street is inspired by more contemporary uprisings in Europe and the Arab world in which youth say they are trying to reclaim the future.

It would be tempting to define the divide between those who support an unfettered free market because government has too much power versus those who want a robust social welfare state (or even socialism) because corporations have too much power. But that is just part of it. The fact that genuinely popular movements could blossom so quickly at both political poles indicates how hollow the political center has become.

The Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements may have diametrically opposed visions of society and power relations, but they both appeal to growing ranks of people who believe the system no longer works for them. Whatever their differences they present a similar challenge that will not disappear because of some policy reforms or reshuffling of the cast in Washington.

Arun Gupta, a New York writer and co-founder of Occupy the Wall Street Journal, covers the Occupy movement for Salon.

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