Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

What the Occupy movement can learn from the Tea Party

By Lawrence Rosenthal

It’s important to look at the Occupy Movement in the context of the Tea Party movement.

Both were utterly unexpected and both were game-changers. The Tea Party emerged in the wake of the election of Barack Obama, when the left was dreaming of a second New Deal and the right was lamenting the death of conservatism. Both of those discourses are now faint memories, and the Tea Party has largely been the agent of those short shelf lives.

Occupy Wall Street emerged at the end of a convulsion over the national debt. As the national conversation pivoted from the “debt crisis” of this summer to “jobs, jobs, jobs,” the Occupy Movement has emerged to expand the discourse into, in effect, the structural problem that lay behind unemployment in large numbers, i.e., the systematic and galloping disproportion in national wealth and income: the 1% versus the 99%.

In their own ways, the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party were reactions to the same thing: what seems like the death knell of the “American dream”—a decent middle class livelihood; job, house; financial security—after the collapse of the American economy of September 2008.

The Tea Partiers had largely enjoyed a lifetime in the middle class. The financial crisis hit toward the end of their working lives. Their feeling was that the “American Dream” was being taken away from them, and they blamed “liberals” wanting to give what they had away to the “undeserving.”

The Occupy Movement is composed largely of people at the beginning of their working lives. Their feeling is that the “American Dream” is something they’ll never get.

In the wake of the fires and vandalism last night in Oakland, it’s clear the Occupy Movement has something to learn from the Tea Party if their mobilization is to have a continuing effect on American politics: The Movement needs to marginalize its extremists.

Remember the raucous Town Hall meetings on health care in the summer of 2009? Some showed up to those meetings armed. Others came with signs: “We come unarmed…this time.”

Those people have faded from the Tea Party. And they are certainly no longer its face.

The Tea Party’s border on its right with the extremist and militia right resembles the Occupy Movement’s border with its far left which is peopled by anarchists, neo-Communists and other “revolutionaries” who see in the rise of the Occupy Movement—as the far right saw in the nascent Tea Party—the vehicle they perennially seek to mobilize masses in the name of their ideology.

The typical openness of left movements leaves them generally more vulnerable to this problem than the Right. An example: A million people took to the streets in this country in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Yet, post-invasion, this movement was little heard from. In large part this was due to a hijacking by leftist ideologues. People who were appalled that their country would invade another country which had not lifted arms against it were treated to speeches about American imperialism generally, racism and the gamut of such ideology. If the Occupy Movement similarly loses its focus and becomes a sounding platform for a grab-bag of “anti-capitalism” and “anti-imperialism, ” it will similarly suffer the problem of leaving its real-world constituency behind.

The Left’s vulnerability to this problem is exacerbated in the Occupy movement by its very defining tactic: camping and eating and meeting in public spaces. Anybody can and will join in such emerging organs of participatory democracy as the Occupy Movement’s “general assemblies,” including many experienced at the rhetoric of escalation. To say nothing of experienced at using demonstrations as arenas for provocation.

To a large extent, the Tea Party resolved this problem by its participation in Republican Party politics. They successfully set themselves up as the conservative litmus test in what was already a quite conservative party, pushing the Republicans as a whole further to the Right. Their power was expressed in the primaries leading up to the 2010 elections, their radicalism in the 2011 Congress, and their role in the current Republican presidential primary campaign.

Democratic politicians are so far at pains to “understand” the “motivations” of the Occupy Movement. But in the climate of American opinion ushered in by the Tea Party, they are afraid of being “tarred” by association with what the Tea Party calls “the mob.” (Many do not appreciate how little the Tea Party sees distinctions between liberals and the far left in the best of times.)

From the other side, much of the Occupy Movement is afraid of collaboration with the Democrats. Many feel they had participated in a movement back in 2008—the movement to elect Barack Obama—only to feel abandoned by Obama, his strategy of bipartisanship and his advisors from Wall Street. It’s a tough constituency for the Democratic Party to win back.

Yesterday’s General Strike in Oakland brought out in high relief both the promise and the perils of the Occupy Movement. The well of sympathy is very deep for what the Occupy Movement stands for. The crisis of long-term unemployment, underwater mortgages, impossible student loans and the rest now crosses class, gender and race lines. Even Tea Partiers themselves might rethink their Us versus Them mentality in the face of a movement that says the Us is 99% of the population. But there is a limit to how much public support can be maintained for yesterday’s daytime success in the face of last night’s collision. Drawing the line between itself and the extremists who wish to exploit the movement, marginalizing the extreme, is a first order of business for the Occupy Movement. Just as it was for the Tea Party.