War of the populisms: Occupy Wall Street vs. the Tea Party

By Kevin Bloom 7 October 2011

With the Occupy Wall Street campaign spreading to cities, small towns and colleges across the United States, the tradition of liberal populism – which stretches back to 1776 – is being reawakened. But can the Democrats harness the anger of the American Left at big business as effectively as the Republicans have harnessed the anger of the American Right at big government? Will President Obama even dare try? By KEVIN BLOOM.

Iowa City is a town of roughly 65,000 people. It’s downtown core can be traversed on foot in around five minutes, and once you’ve been inside the lone theatre, walked past the house where Kurt Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse Five, and drank in the bar from which Hunter S Thompson was famously evicted, you’ve just about seen all there is to see here. Meaning that, in many ways, the place is Main Street, USA, in microcosm. Which made it all the more surprising that on Monday this week, on the lawns outside the Old Capitol, I witnessed the following scene:

“You’re a nurse,” said a middle-aged woman, hair flying and eyes fiery, to a passerby she recognised. “You’ll be interested in our very own Occupy Wall Street protest.”

The woman handed a pamphlet to the nurse, who stopped to read it, in an exchange emblematic of thousands that have been going on across the States over the last few weeks. As the protests have spilled out of Manhattan and into the country at large, labour unions have begun to endorse the activists. Today, Wednesday 5 October, hundreds of nurses from the Massachusetts Nurses Association will join the Occupy Boston campaign. Beyond the northeast, protests are attracting similar union interest in Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle. But it’s back in New York, the spiritual home of the campaign, where the most serious labour endorsements lie.

One of the many unions that stand behind the campaign in the city is the United Federation of Teachers, which represents 200,000 New York City public teachers. “The way our society is now headed it does not work for 99% of people,” said the union’s president in a statement, “so when Occupy Wall Street started … they kept to it and they’ve been able to create a national conversation that we think should have been going on for years.”

A big part of what’s spurring the movement’s rapid growth is police brutality and the arrests, to date, of over 1,000 protesters. Banners proclaiming things like “Peaceful campaigners arrested: 1,000; Crooked bankers arrested: 0,” have voiced an anger that’s reaching universities – a nationwide college student walkout has been called for noon on Wednesday – and therefore forcing the mainstream media to pay attention. Even Fox, the mouthpiece of the Right, has had to hit back with venom at a phenomenon it can no loner ignore.

One of Fox’s strategies has been to highlight the observations of conservative columnist Michelle Malkin, who noted that the protesters have taken to calling themselves the “99 percent” in the country, labeling the capitalists they wish to remove from power the other “1 percent” – which is ironic, she said, because the crowds are mostly white. “When Occupy Wall Street activists call themselves the ‘99 percent,’ it turns out they mean 99 percent non-diverse (by their own politically correct measurements),” Malkin wrote to Fox Nation in an email. Even more ironic, though, was the photograph Fox used to illustrate the story: the majority of the faces in the crowd are anything but white (see link below).

Still, there’s a deeper level to the predictable partisan split on the Occupy Wall Street campaign. Commentators and political pundits have begun to wonder aloud whether the movement represents the dawn of a liberal Tea Party. Perhaps the most persuasive answer to this question came on Wednesday from John Zogby, former CEO of worldwide political polling, opinion and market research company Zogby International, who suggested in a column on the Forbes website that the movements on the Left will not have as much influence on the Democrats as the Tea Party has had on Republicans.

“The Tea Party has shown its grassroots power, but from its beginning had an electoral and financial infrastructure and a huge influence on the Republican Party,” wrote Zogby, intimating that Occupy Wall Street has none of these things. He’s right, of course – Occupy Wall Street doesn’t have a leader, never mind a coherent leadership and a set of principles with which all self-appointed sympathisers (even the word “member” seems a stretch) would agree. The common enemy may be big business and investment bankers, and social media like Twitter and Facebook may be proving an effective way to spread the message, yet how this all gets translated into lasting change implemented at the legislative and executive levels is unclear.

The Democrats, for their part, are doing their best to pretend that there isn’t a small-scale liberal populist uprising engulfing the country at the moment. As Jennifer Rubin notes in the Washington Post: “Obama is now the ‘establishment,’ as much as he would yearn to be out there organising his community and railing against corporate profits… Right now, Obama has enough problems just getting Democrats in Congress to support his jobs bill. He sure doesn’t need to go borrowing trouble by showing solidarity with the mob.”

Which may or may not be good advice. The “mob,” as Rubin puts it, has been a cornerstone of American democracy since 1776. Starting with Thomas Jefferson, who railed shortly after independence against the dangers of a “moneyed aristocracy,” through to both Roosevelts, who brought populism into the White House in the 20th century by consistently lambasting Wall Street financiers, the anger of “the people” has been something the best US presidents have understood and internalised.

So October 2011 is a scary moment in America, albeit a fascinating one. The populism of the Right, as manifested in the anger of the people at big government, is something the Republicans know how to harness. But behind the populism of the Left, as manifested in the anger at big business, there’s currently a large gaping hole. DM

Read more:

  • “Malkin: ‘Occupy Wall Street’ 99% White,” in Fox Nation;
  • “The Left Brewing Its Own Tea,” in Forbes;
  • “Free advice to the president on Wall Street protesters,” in Washington Post.



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