What Occupy Wall Street Can Learn from the Tea Party

wall streetThe 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.

john peelerNow, 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?

John Peeler


  1. Jack says

    If the somewhat left and somewhat right leaning people ever take a moment to figure out what we have in common, the Occupy movement will turn into the American movement to reclaim our government.

    Most Americans are not far right or left in our thinking, most of us are in the middle. That doesn’t mean we have muddy or confused opinions, it means we sometimes agree with one political side, and sometimes the other. Although not fully agreeing with a left or right wing agenda, we do often have strong opinions regarding specific issues. Which is why so many of us can’t be forced to toe the party line on a lot of today’s important issues.

    I’ve been to Tea Party gatherings, and I attended Occupy Wall Street in New York. Aside from a few extremes, members of both groups clearly have shared values. We want a stable country with a path to recovery and opportunities for ourselves and our children. We want to believe in our country and do what’s right both here and around the globe. So why can’t we use those shared values to create the kind of political clout our country desperately needs right now to save it from collapse?

    The reason why is because we’re too busy fighting to see what we have in common. The left wing depicts the tea partiers as racist, uneducated bigots, but most of them are business owners and workers who are fed up with not just government, but the left wing’s theft or our resources with easily abused social programs. The right wing considers liberals to be naïve, sappy fools who can’t see that our welfare programs are creating a whole class of people who are choosing to suck off the public rather than take responsibility for their lives and their communities. How long are we going to support intergenerational welfare before we realize that handing people free money, free housing, free food, free healthcare, free utilities, etc, simply makes them and others refuse to work for themselves. Wouldn’t it be better to give free college educations and enormous community support for those who are willing to work, rather than handholding and baby sitting adults who continue to choose to spend their money on drugs, alcohol and cigarettes while the public pays for their homes and kids? We’re a rich nation, and no one should be starving here, but that doesn’t mean we should be taking money from those who are willing to work and giving it to those who are deliberately impoverished. How can we help those who truly need our support when so many utilizing social services are big cheaters who are happy to suck of the public? And that’s where Democrats lose votes, when we refuse to consider that there might be better ways to help people than handing them money.

    The far right is as bad, or worse, than naïve liberals. This country is not a theocracy, and Cafeteria Christians should not be allowed to oppress others based on their slanted interpretation of the Bible. I don’t care if they think God hates gays, the separation of church and state needs to be reinforced to protect minorities. More to the point, if the left wing and moderates don’t get off their butts and demand equal rights for gay citizens, the GOP will continue to use that issue to motivate their base in spite of their right wing corporate welfare programs that steal from the very people who vote for them. Clearly, both sides of the electorate are being taken for fools. I’ve talked to regular folks who spout Faux News sound bites such as, “We need to get rid of all these entitlements.” When I inform them that “those entitlements” include their own social security retirement package they’ve paid into for years, they’re shocked. When I drag my liberal friends into homes where the welfare mom refuses to marry the father(s) of her children, AND she neglects to tell the government that said father or some new boyfriend is actually living with her, because she’ll lose her Section 8 housing, HEAP utility payments, ADC, free health care, etc, etc, those liberal friends start to rethink our social service giveaways. (Although, they often persist in believing the cheaters are isolated incidents, not a pattern of intergenerational welfare that hurts society, our country and even the welfare recipients themselves. Heh, naïve liberals…)

    So what can be done, in addition to the tedious education/enlightenment of our fellow citizens? The left wing voted for Obama thinking he’d be a hero of the common people and he’s turned out to be the biggest stealth Republican ever! He snuck through an extension to the Bush tax cuts for the rich, and he bailed out Wall Street instead of Main Street, making us fund the banks’ obscene attacks on America’s homeowners. He campaigned on transparency and against the abuses of the Bush Administration, then quietly cemented in place those policies that allow him to continue the same practices. He totally played us with Universal Healthcare, giving us Universal Health Insurance instead. Worse, he claimed he wouldn’t accept UNC without a public option, even though he probably dealt that card away months prior in secret meetings with the insurance and hospital industries, then nixed it last minute before the bill was passed. Many on the left still haven’t figured out that Obama cheated us, and are falling in lock step now that Obama is back in campaign mode, pretending he’s on our side. While both the left and the right are played by savvy politicians, the super rich are amassing enough wealth to take over not just this country, but the entire world.

    Luckily, there are a lot of us in the middle who see through the nonsense of both the left and the right, and just want a government that provides for OUR needs for a change. Because, in reality, we’re all being played against each other so the rich can continue to steal our resources. We’re a great nation precisely because we’ve fostered the rise of the middle class, we’ve demanded workplace protections, environmental protections, minimum pay, child labor laws, social security programs, etc. But our efforts being sucked away by welfare on both sides of the economic spectrum: corporate greed with Obama’s bailouts of the super rich, and the deliberately impoverished (or the dishonest cheaters) who are stealing resources away from those who truly need our help.

    One thing is for sure, though: If we can create a set of plans and policies that support the middle class over both the rich and the poor, and prioritize citizens over non-citizens, we can take back control of our government gone awry. Will liberals be able to stomach letting go of their pet policies that don’t work as they were intended? Will the right wing be able to shake off the lunatic fringe that thinks, no probably WANTS us all to go up in a flash of light in 2012? Can moderates and conservatives let go of their desperate last ditch efforts to oppress gay citizens?

    As soon as the Tea Party folks realize that they have common goals with the Occupy Wall Street movement to take back our government from its corporate masters, many of them will join us. The question is, will we be smart enough to include them in our efforts. Because they do have valid concerns, the most important of which is the liberal welfare mentality. On our side, we need to reassess our social programs and reign in their rampant abuse. Giving welfare (Section 8, HEAP payments, food stamps and cash) to those who would choose to make their lives better if we didn’t make it so easy for them to suck off society is EXACTLY what caused hard working Americans to vote for Reagan, Nixon and the Bushes. And today, that kind of foolish welfare mentality is what drives independents and working Americans into the hands of the GOP. The few people who really need our help are outweighed by the millions who scam the system. How long do we think we can keep supporting intergenerational welfare? It’s simply unsustainable, and it destroys our political clout when we’re so naïve we don’t realize we’re being suckered.

    Is the left wing willing to reassess our give-away, freebie, no accountability welfare mentality? If so, then we’ll be able to create a strong movement that truly supports the middle class over the super rich by pulling in millions of mainstream Americans that agree with our goals, minus the naïve social programs we’ve created. If we can’t give up our easily abused welfare programs, and if we’re not willing to admit that we’re being scammed by many, if not most, people utilizing our social welfare programs, then this country is sunk. Because we can’t fight the billionaires who own our government unless we consolidate the real 99% of us who span the political spectrum from left to right, most of whom are somewhere in the middle.

    • Ryder says

      I think what I would have to say is that the Tea Party was here WAY before OWS, and was against the bai-outs years before OWS figured it out. The call for unity is a good one, Jack, but the fault lies in OWS, that had every opportunity to join the Tea Party… and instead hammered away at it with baseless accusations of Racism (as if that makes any difference in demanding constitutional government).

      The message was “Ignore them… right or wrong…. it doesn’t matter. They are racists… and therefore subhuman.”

      Dehumanization is an evil practice… and one that the left has and continues to engage in.

      The Tea Party leans libertarian… and there is a libertarian wing of OWS. (and is clearly the most knowledgeable part of OWS. The can tell you what money actually is.)

      Libertarianism is the common thread. The problem with this is that libertarianism is very much opposite of socialism… and the Socialists of the left are terrified of a world where people are free and responsible for themselves, because this means that people are free to fail.

      To me, those that claim membership in the 99% are as greedy as anyone can be. The number is arbitrary. They could have drawn a line at 10/90, or 20/80… but instead, they chose to take all they could… 99% vs. 1%. The ultimate grab for power in no holds barred class warfare. Marginalize the smallest possible group, and go on the attack. “We’re as big as possible, you are as small as possible”.

      The childishness of it is astounding.

      I respect the 53% more than the 99%. At least their number has philosophical and practical meaning.

  2. Ray Bishop says

    Several good points here. The fact is that in America or anywhere else on the earth, when the people are sick and tired of what is happening, demonstrations and public protests can and will bring about change.
    If the power structure attempts to shut down the group the reaction will be stronger and could result in a greater impact. Tea party or Occupy it is time that the POWER STRUCTURE of the World wake up to the fact that we are living beings on the planet. We can only take so much. We deserve and demand something better.
    The problem is to know the direction to take to get there. I happen to think that the problem is with the concentration of wealth and the influence it has on leadership. The Power System needs to give up the endless conquest of greed and give back to the people who work for a living. The demand for fewer regulations and fewer taxes on the wealthy can not last. People are sick and tired of it and want to empower leaders who will stand up for them and provide for a better life.
    I support public protest and admire the people who give of their time to take a stand.
    Let them kill the grass but bring greater opportunity to the families who are struggling to live.

    • Ryder says

      Well… The Dark Ages were “change”.

      But good ideas also bring about “change”. The Constitution was one of those ideas. Except according to Progressives. They say that now it’s “dated” and is broken…. but have you noticed, the further we stray from it, the worse off we are.

      The obvious idea of the Constitution was that it placed vast limits on government… in fact, saying that it had no power at all, outside of what was explicitly granted it in the Constitution.

      Since it is not possible to prevent influence on leadership, and never has been, then the problem is that leadership has taken far more power than the Constitution allows for. The current President says he has the power to FORCE YOU to buy a private industry product.

      Think about that for a moment.

      When the government has the power to force you to buy things… just because you exist, what does that mean to those that are corrupt with great influence? Were I in that position, obviously I would get government to force the people to buy my product as well.

      In a free world, people must be allowed to live from moment to moment… free to consume everything they have made and not save a dime… and therefore have no wealth. Freedom also means the freedom to work, save… and not consume. These opposite ideas, implicit in freedom, mean that some will have and some will have not… as part of the perfectly natural progression of things, and as a result of choice and personal fate.

      Freedom demands that this happens.

      We can burn down civilization… and turn back the clock to 2000 years BC without money and banks if we want to… but even then we will discover that the powerful still exist, and our lot will be much worse off than it is today… in a world where life is so easy, and disposable income so prevalent… that the poor OWS campers can afford as many tattoos and piercings as they desire, instead of save for the rainy days that always come.

  3. RonF says

    The Tea Party movement has had numerous rallies, including a massive on on the National Mall before the 2010 elections. However, after they had those rallies they LEFT! They cleaned up their mess, went home and organized local chapters that took political actions. They found candidates – some not particularly good ones, but those were the minority – ran them in the Republican primaries and supported them with grass-roots actions. They got out the vote and won. Scores of Tea Party movement-supported candidates were part of the biggest turnover – in both percentage and raw numbers – of House members ever in the history of the U.S. And those Representatives are voting precisely the way that the people who voted them into office want them to.

    Now, what is OWS doing? Rallies? Demonstrations? Regardless of what you may think of what they’re doing, to most people they look like a bunch of hippies on an extended campout. Where’s the strategy? What’s the next move? It seems as though they’re trying to convince the general populace to – do what? Vote for – who? Democrats? Hell, they’ve bought into the current power structure too. President Obama has gotten more contributions from Wall Street forms than all the Republican candidates put together. The Tea Party didn’t try to influence existing politicians. They knew that most of them were hopeless. So they went out and replaced them! If OWS wanted to do the same thing they needed to start finding candidates and getting them set up to run in the primaries starting yesterday. OWS gets a lot of ink and TV time but what are they doing that will make a change in Congress? Do you think they’re going to get people who voted for Tea Party candidates to change their minds? Not likely. I don’t see them getting much done.

  4. Lauren Steiner says

    Just a point of clarification: Democracy for American and other progressive groups had NOTHING to do with the start of OWS. They are just glomming onto it now that it has been so successful in capturing the imagination of the public. Read these two articles by two of the people who were there from the beginning for the real story.



  5. Ryder says

    John is doing a poor bit of work here. The origins of both the Tea Party and Occupy are well established, down to the day and hour. The former was unwittingly started by CNBC Business News Editor Rick Santelli when he went into a live rant on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on Feb 19, 2009, spontaneously (and jokingly) called for “tea party” in response to government bailing out mortgages.

    This video was linked in DrudgeReport, and the Tea Party movement sprung into existence almost overnight. Drudge Report gets over 30 million visits a day, and over 10 BILLION visits over the last year, and is among the top 400 web sites in the world (L.A. Progressive, on the other hand, ranks 128,715th, just to give a sense of scale).

    The Koch Brothers have been giving to many conservative causes for over a decade, and sometime following the birth of the Tea Party, there is no reason to doubt that Koch Brother donations have helped the Tea Party as well as many other conservative organizations. No one has been able to discern that the Koch brothers have had any influence on the goals of the Tea Party, and certainly not the origins.

    The Tea Party did in fact spring fully from the bosom of the people… inspired by live television rant, turned viral video. Without intending to, Rick Santelli became the godfather of the Tea Party… but has never had prominent role except for his initial broadcast.

    Of course the Tea Party has it’s foundation in the Boston Tea Party of 1773, an iconic anti-taxation event that has been sited many times by citizens, politicians and organizations over the years, especially in relation to excess taxation, a theme carried on by the current Tea Party movement.

    Occupy Wall Street, on the other hand, was organized by 10 year old “Adbusters Media Foundation” an anti-consumerist magazine out of Canada. They registered occupyWallSt.org domain in the summer of 2011, weeks before the first demonstrations. Their web site continues to try to organize the movement to this day. The roots of the organization began when founder Kalle Lasn became angry that he had to insert a quarter to use a shopping cart (a method used to help reduce shopping cart theft), and vandalized the machine, making it fully inoperable by anyone.

    The tactic used by Adbusters is called “culture jamming”, with aims to “interrupt” or “jam” consumerism, much in keeping with the shopping cart vandalism.

    Adbusters has launched numerous international efforts, like TV Turnoff Week, Buy Nothing Day, and of course Occupy Wall Street.

    There is no doubt that Adbusters has lost control of their message and intent. “Occupy” has now been “occupied” by unions, environmentalists, anarchists, Marxists, pacifists and just about every progressive movement one might imagine… all with separate and overlapping messages.

    “Anarchists for Big Government” is a good example of the confusion of message at OWS, the perfect oxymoron. At present, OWS represents anger about many things… has not been entirely peaceful, and certainly has been disruptive. So while OWS has not stuck to its origins, Adbusters is almost certainly happy with the result.

    End history lesson.

    For the simple fact that OWS has so many messages, of course some overlap with the Tea Party. Both OWS and the Tea Party have contingents that are for “sound money” and basic libertarian ideals, including either auditing or fully ending the Federal Reserve. This would be the Ron Paul contingent. The Tea Party is calling for limited government, while the Anarchists at OWS are calling for NO state government (at least the ones that know what anarchy is), making them much closer to each other than the anarchists are to the big government progressives of OWC.

    In the end, OWC has a formidable intellectual challenge ahead. It must somehow reconcile the idea that “corporations control government”, and the other idea that “government must create regulations to protect us from corporations”. Obviously these ideas don’t work together.

    At all.

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