The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are polar opposites in their political commitments and policy goals. The former articulates a militantly right-wing ideology with particular emphasis on reducing the size of government social programs. The latter, while much newer and still inchoate insofar as specific proposals are concerned, certainly stands for more robust regulation of the economy and redistribution of wealth and income from the richest one percent to everyone else.
Yet each gives the appearance of a spontaneous popular movement breaking out of everyday channels of political participation and action. Appearances can be deceiving.
The Tea Party clearly has substantial and passionate mass support: polls indicate between 15 and 20 percent of the total electorate, and of course a much higher proportion of the Republican electorate. It brings together the most militantly conservative elements of the Republican coalition. But we now know that the initiative for the Tea Party Movement came not from the grassroots but from the highest reaches of the conservative establishment: the Koch brothers and such long-time conservative leaders as former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (now Chairman of the conservative organization FreedomWorks).
Regardless of its origins, though, the Tea Party has had a massive impact on the political system, electing a new Republican—and much more conservative—House majority in Washington, as well as several governors and new state legislative majorities. Even more important, the Tea Party has changed the agenda in the country, from how to spend more money to get out of the recession, to how to cut more spending. Decades of quasi-Keynesian economic consensus are gone; the ideal of balanced federal budgets and a drastically reduced government role is the new conventional wisdom. The Tea Party is a big deal.
Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is a much newer movement, just weeks old, so no meaningful comparison can be made with what the Tea Party has accomplished. But its goals are similar: in particular, OWS seeks to change the debate, to call attention to the fact that a tiny, rich minority is monopolizing all the benefits of our economy while the rest of us are either stagnating or falling behind. And the initial public demonstrations in New York and around the country (and in many other countries too) have succeeded in finally getting that message across in ways that countless columns by Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, and others have been unable to do. They have begun, as the Tea Party did before, to change the agenda, to put the issues of economic justice back on the table.
OWS, like the Tea Party, did not spring fully formed from the bosom of the people: various progressive organizations such as Democracy for America had a great deal to do with pulling together like-minded people and providing strategic support, but the scale of such organizational backing is dwarfed by the Right Wing midwifing of the Tea Party.
Now, OWS faces the task of achieving enough coherence and coordination to become a lasting force on the national scene. Too much national leadership will suck the life out of a spontaneous movement, but too little will allow its energy to dissipate like a wave breaking on the rocks.
Occupy Wall Street has an opportunity here to develop the kind of clout that the Tea Party has, but to do it they will have to be every bit as hard-nosed and disciplined.
Politics in its highest sense is about doing what is best for the country, but it is also about getting the power to define what is best. The Tea Party understands that; does OWS?