Why Occupy Wall Street Is No Tea Party
As the Occupy Wall Street movement attempts to establish a firm foothold in American society, veterans of left-wing organizing, including former Obama administration czar Van Jones, are urging this fledgling movement to run candidates for office, following the Tea Party model of transforming a grassroots movement into a powerful electoral force. After all, what good is storming local bank branches and blocking Americans from going to work if you don't send representatives to Congress who share your core values and goals? But the prospect of OWS emerging as a viable political force is a pipe dream, akin to similar aspirations held by OWS's ideological predecessors, the 1960s counterculture.
There are fundamental differences between the Tea Party and OWS that made the former a formidable political force and will render the latter an inconsequential soon-to-be historical footnote. Of course, there are also some basic similarities. In the abstract, both are grassroots movements dissatisfied with the status quo and bank bailouts fighting for transformative change. But beyond the abstract, the movements diverge into mutually exclusive entities.
From the beginning, the Tea Party was primarily made up of middle-class, fiscally conservative Americans who opposed government expansion under President Obama and the Democratic Congress. They organized and rallied peacefully, picked up after themselves, and didn't cost taxpayers a dime. The Tea Party called for less debt, less spending, and less government intervention in the economy. They didn't always offer detailed policy proposals, but they did espouse coherent philosophical and economic principles. And while they understandably made some rookie political mistakes, the Tea Party succeeded in transforming the electoral landscape in 2009 and 2010. Their success was all the more impressive, given how novel and politically inexperienced this movement was.
Compare the composition and the philosophical underpinnings of the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street. Every fringe group seems to gravitate towards OWS. Endorsed by the American Nazi Party, the American Communist Party, David Duke, Iran's Ayatollah, Hugo Chávez, and Kim Jong-il, OWS is a hodgepodge of fringe radicalism, with no clear and concrete values shared by its members, save for a general aversion to capitalism and economic liberty. A movement so philosophically muddled and absurd that it garners the support of a former KKK Grand Wizard, an Islamic fundamentalist, and a Stalinist dictator cannot expect to build winning political coalitions.
OWS supporters counter that every movement entails fringe elements that do not represent the movement as a whole. Interestingly, neither the opponents of the Tea Party nor the mainstream media afforded this benefit of the doubt to the Tea Party; a handful of tasteless and offensive signs at Tea Party rallies were routinely used to disingenuously brand the entire movement as racist, violent, and radical. Lest we be guilty of inaccurately branding OWS, let's actually examine what OWS stands for.
What are some of Occupy Wall Street's guiding principles? Pitting people who make over $300,000 (the 1%) against their friends and family who make less (the 99%)? Pitting employers against employees? The OWS crowd opposes Wall Street bailouts, but supports massive government intervention in the economy and bailouts for mortgage and college debt. They say they oppose crony capitalism but support government takeover of major sectors of the economy. They oppose income inequality but don't explain how making people less wealthy will help the "99%."
The only discernible and consistent message of OWS seems to be that they don't like free enterprise. Free enterprise and rich people. You can't win elections on a barely intelligible, anti-capitalist platform, especially when you lack clear and actionable ideas. The Tea Party rallied against Obamacare, demanded that government reign in its profligate spending, and fought against congressional earmarks. On the other hand, OWS believes that we should put people over profits, end corporate greed, and bail out $1 trillion of student debt. This is indeed a far cry from the philosophically cohesive and coherent Tea Party.
Admittedly, it would be fascinating to watch a movement armed with little more than abstract radical leftist talking points, whose members throw bottles at police, occupy ports and bridges, and are endorsed by international anti-American zealots, attempt to navigate the electoral process. That would be some spectacle.
As a fledgling grassroots movement inexperienced in political advocacy, the Tea Party proved to be surprisingly effective at transforming grassroots energy into political success. Occupy Wall Street doesn't have a chance of duplicating the Tea Party's success -- not because it's made up of political novices, but because it's primarily made up of fringe radicals, young people who don't know any better, petty hooligans, and people whose political views and intellect are aptly reflected by the ubiquitous Che Guevera shirts.