Occupy Wall Street versus the Tea Party (I)

Perhaps predictably, the comments section of the Washington Post in response to my op-ed has provided a space for typists to rail against me in making their own political points.  The notion that I would dare to compare the Occupiers and the Tea Partiers, particularly, has appalled respondents on the left and right.

Tea Partiers are angry that I would compare a bunch of unwashed and lazy moochers, ready to disrupt and break the law with upstanding employed people who are petitioning, sometimes with their feet, to reign in government.

Politico comparison of Tea Party and Occupy movement

Sympathizers with the Occupiers report that I don’t understand how the Occupy effort is an effort to build democracy–while the Tea Party is bought and paid for by large money, and is essentially a surrogate for the right wing of the Republican Party.

The protesting people you like are authentic and provoked; those you disagree with are deceived, doing someone else’s bidding (big business or ideologues), stupid, and/or selfish.   It’s too hard to recognize the possibility of sincerity and good will from your political opponents.  (I must confess, however, that I don’t believe that I’m getting flack from both sides means I’m right.)

What’s the same?  Both movements, one well-developed and institutionalizing, another emergent, represent substantial groups of people, angry about governance and the economy, who’ve taken to the streets as their best hope of effecting influence, taking politics outdoors.  To make an impact, they will have to inspire and/or coerce support from people fully engaged in more institutional politics, where they each have allies.

That said, the differences are significant: Two lines that the editors cut from the Post piece:  While the Tea Partiers dragged lawn chairs to large rallies, the Occupiers carried sleeping bags, planning for a longer stay. Images from the Occupy Wall Street movement show a younger and more colorful America than Tea Party projects.

Neither point is as trivial as it might seem.  Tea Party supporters ARE older, whiter, and more affluent than the rest of America.  We don’t have comparable data–yet–from the Occupy movement, but the pictures and issues clearly show a larger share of people in the early stages of their working life, and a larger share of people who aren’t white.  The Occupiers are strongest in large cities.

America is changing demographically, something that at least some of the Tea Party is fighting, trying to appeal to an imaginary past, rather than recognizing the world as it is.  The Occupiers are deeply steeped in the travails of the present (see the grievances at we are the 99 percent), and at least some visible portion of those at Wall Street are heavily invested in an imagined (democratic) future that appears utopian.

The inspired visions, of a strict Constitution without the baggage of the real historical Constitution (slavery, for example), or decentralized democracy with grassroots participation and widespread engagement, animate the action–and especially the rhetoric–of many protesters, but movements operate in the present, with extremely pragmatic constraints.  History doesn’t end either way.

With the Republican establishment largely out of power at the outset of the Tea Party, party operatives and organized groups were quick to invest in the emergent Tea Party.  Freedom Works trained organizers across the United States and produced scripts for disrupting the town hall meetings of 2009.  The support of large business interests, most dramatically represented by the billionaire Koch Brothers, provided a deep pocket to invest in one set of ideas and a social movement strategy.  Recall the surge in sales for Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, as conservative activists promoted the virtues of organizing.

Well-established groups rebranded themselves as Tea Party campaigns to raise money and their public profile.  Sal Russo’s Tea Party Express was a conservative PAC called Our Country Deserves Better; the movement changed the names, but the activity–funneling money into political campaigns–stayed the same.  And national Tea Party groups have been incredibly successful at raising money.

The Tea Party also enjoyed the active support of a segment of mainstream media, most obviously, Fox News, which promoted its events and consistently offered a favorable interpretation of Tea Party activism.  There is no comparable analogue on the left.

I do not mean to suggest there isn’t real grassroots activism out there on the right.  The Tea Party appeals found strong support from frustrated Americans, and the passionate endorsement of a significant minority of Americans.  Real money and organizational skill couldn’t produce a movement without some public resonance, which the Tea Party demonstrated.

Now, however, Tea Party efforts have moved to focus on electoral politics and Washington lobbying–at the expense of the grassroots.  Tea Party Express chair Amy Kremer explained that shift as reflecting the Tea Party’s growing up: “The movement has matured, and we have learned that having a rally, it’s great, it attracts people but it doesn’t affect change just because you’re out on the lawn or 20 days and 20 nights.”

The move to conventional politics helped the national groups make the movement’s apparent focus the debt and deficit, and channel opposition to taxes and regulation–and not issues many local groups preferred, like immigration, social concerns, or the Federal Reserve.  The battle to define the Tea Party continues, now through the Republican primary season.

Occupy Wall Street came from outside of virtually all of the large left and liberal groups, which were initially wary about offering support–or even publicity.  Only when activists demonstrated the potential appeal and staying power of their effort did larger groups, like Moveon.org and the unions jump on.  The organized groups insist that they don’t want to take over, but rather, to endorse the activists.

The struggle to define the Occupy movement is just beginning.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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2 Responses to Occupy Wall Street versus the Tea Party (I)

  1. gringoguapo says:

    I reiterate…having almost half of citizens paying no federal INCOME taxes corrupts federal elections. These citizens have little reason to vote for fiscally responsible candidates and to vote for candidates that promise FREE benefits. Payroll taxes are paid by employers. The portion supposedly paid by the employee is considered a cost by the employer. It all is a cost of employing a person paid by the employer. Fed gas taxes? What voter considers these when voting? Come on less affluent, pay your fair share. All citizens should pay equally for government.
    “Progressive” ie liberal taxation corrupts elections.

    • There are two points here. The first seems just factually incorrect: taxpayers and wage-earners don’t see Social Security and excise taxes as taxes. More than 6 percent of each earner’s salary goes to Social Security. The first time I got a paycheck , I was shocked to see that I was getting less in cash than my hourly wage (I think it was $2.35 an hour). I’ve never spoken with someone who hasn’t had a similar experience when starting work. And I stare at the placard explaining how much federal tax is on gasoline every time I fill up. Point: I think people know they’re paying.
      Second point: You assert that if they paid more taxes, they would behave more responsibly, voting for people who won’t raise taxes.
      Well, I agree that we should pay for what we do, both individually and as a country. But we didn’t have a war tax–and Iraq and Afghanistan will cost something like $3 trillion all by themselves.
      So, right now, a family of four that earns up to about $51,000 won’t pay federal income tax. How much do you want to take from them? Really, you can’t take much, so this can’t be a means of funding government. Is it just a way to get them to oppose income taxes?
      There’s also some number of very wealthy people who pay no income taxes as well.
      Here’s a recent explainer from the NY Times: http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/28/who-doesnt-pay-federal-income-taxes-legally/
      Here’s some data from the Tax Policy Center: http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/taxtopics/federal-taxes-households.cfm
      And here’s a good discussion from economist, Mark Thoma http://economistsview.typepad.com/economistsview/2011/06/who-doesnt-pay-federal-income-taxes.html

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