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What Occupy Wall Street learned from the tea party

By David S. Meyer


The Occupy Wall Street movement, several weeks strong and gaining momentum, reminds us that tea partyers aren’t the only people unhappy with the state of the nation.

The two groups are angry about some of the same things, too, especially the government bailouts for big banks — a similarity that Vice President Biden observed in remarks. They’ve taken different tacks for expressing their anger. The Occupiers camp out in New York’s Financial District, while tea partyers have elected people to fight against government spending and deficits — and against regulations or oversight of businesses, small and big.

It’s not something they’re likely to claim credit for, but members of the tea party have cleared the way for protesters on the other side of the political spectrum. The tea party demonstrated that protest works, even when government doesn’t.

Most people take to protest only when they believe that it is their best hope for getting what they want. It doesn’t have to be extremely promising, just more likely to work than anything else. Nearly three years into President Obama’s term, the Occupiers have little reason to believe that their government is going to respond to their concerns. Washington seems stalemated, and the protesters’ priorities — addressing economic insecurity and political inequality — aren’t high on the agenda. So they’ve gone to Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, camped out in front of Los Angeles City Hall and marched in Washington’s Freedom Plaza.

Not very long ago, this is essentially what the tea party was doing. Supporters started to appear at town meetings and rallies in 2009,demanding a more responsive government. Our political institutions, they said, no longer worked the way they were supposed to, and the concerns of regular people were being ignored. The Occupiers agree, although the regular people they represent look a little different.

The tea partyers’ success at the polls, ironically, made it even harder for the government to get anything done, as clearly demonstrated by last summer’s debt-ceiling debacle. The Occupiers watched, and learned.

One lesson was the virtue of audacity. The tea partyers who shouted down members of Congress at town hall meetings during the health-care debate in the summer of 2009 got massive media attention and built a national movement. The Occupiers went after the capital of capitalism, Wall Street, promising a long-term encampment and, more generally, to create a movement that would speak for the “99 percent” of Americans whose interests neither Wall Street nor the government is taking seriously.

Less than two months ago in these pages, I wondered where the movement on behalf of those suffering most in this stagnant economy was. I argued that for a powerful protest movement to emerge, large, established progressive organizations and labor unions had to invest heavily in organizing one. The Occupiers have so far shown otherwise.

The call to occupy Wall Street didn’t come from any of those well-funded and experienced groups, but from Adbusters, an activist magazine in Canada, and was endorsed quickly by the hacktivist collective Anonymous. At first, the turnout in Lower Manhattan was small, far less than the 20,000 that the organizers predicted. Coverage from mainstream media was slight. Yet news spread online through many activist networks, and the protest continued, with dozens of activists sleeping out on rainy nights, holding open a space for broader activism.

And it came. Activist celebrities and celebrity activists visited, and much larger crowds turned out for events including a march across the Brooklyn Bridge that disrupted traffic and led to more than 700 arrests. That made news around the world, and as mass media began to cover the protest and the stories of the people involved, new allies signed on to the campaign. Organized groups and individuals who couldn’t get to New York started other Occupy campaigns around the country, often relabeling events they had already planned.

The Occupation became a place where diverse groups could bring their grievances, as when hundreds of pilots marched, in uniform, against the very slow progress in their contract negotiations — and corporate greed more generally. National progressive groups and trade unions, which were initially wary of the Occupy effort, issued statements of support. This past week, Occupy Wall Street staged a much larger demonstration, its numbers swelled by the support of unions representing nurses, teachers, transit workers and others.

Just what the movement is is controversial. Stressing the need for consensus, the Occupiers haven’t settled on demands, expressing general criticism of inequality and telling personal stories about health-care problems, student loan and mortgage debt, and — over and over — unemployment and underemployment. Individual demonstrators have offered remedies, from tax reform to global revolution, but the Occupy movement has refused to settle on a narrow set of demands; instead, participants are demanding that others come up with answers to their problems. And it’s not hard to see a familiar left-liberal agenda offering solutions.

The Occupiers can’t control what happens next. As larger, more established groups join them, they are staking their own claims about what needs to be done, trying to contribute and ride the surge of discontent that the Occupiers have launched. MoveOn.org endorsed the protest, and Van Jones, whose brief, controversial tenure as an environmental adviser in the Obama administration eventually led to his national campaign to “take back the American dream,” credited the Occupiers with starting what might become a liberal counterpart to the tea party.

Politicians have begun to respond, as well. In Los Angeles, several City Council members visited the Occupation in front of City Hall before the council introduced a resolution of support. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sent 100 ponchos to the Occupiers’ tent city when rain came. Soon, the activists will want more than rain gear.

As with all social movements in America, this one will evolve as it grows. Some issues will come to centerstage while others will get crowded out. How the Occupiers are defined will determine their influence. Calls for progressive taxation or serious investments in education and jobs, for example, are likely to make for a larger coalition than a vague call to end global capitalism.

And what’s happening with the tea party? For the first two years of the Obama administration, it was the political right that was staging the colorful and visible demonstrations that made the news. In relatively short order, it marched into the Republican Party, invigorating electoral campaigns — at the expense of the grass-roots mobilization that first made headlines. National tea party groups, such as FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, have raised more money than ever before and have been fully engaged in the Republican presidential primaries.

The large demonstrations that put the movement on the political map have tapered off. Tea party activists are struggling with how to reconcile their vision with the actual candidates for office, who will always be imperfect messengers. FreedomWorks, for example, protested outside a presidential forum sponsored by the Tea Party Express because Mitt Romney was participating. What’s best for the movement? A purist who won’t be elected? A well-funded pragmatic candidate who, they fear, will sell them out once in office?

Obama is not being challenged for the Democratic nomination, so Occupy activists don’t face that same dilemma. They can press for what they believe in and watch as politicians try to deliver. They’re already trying. This past week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) proposed financing a jobs program with a surtax on millionaires. This might or might not be good policy; the Occupiers have shown, though, that it’s good politics.

But this movement is just beginning, and this is only the first political response. If the mobilization continues and grows, the offers will only get better.

David S. Meyer is a professor of sociology and political science at the University of California at Irvine and the author of The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America. He blogs at politicsoutdoors.com, where this article originally appeared.

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