The Tea Party led the way. Largely financed by America’s 1% beneficiaries, particularly the Koch brothers who did not earn their wealth so much as they inherited it, Tea Partiers are older and whiter. Born at third base, they think that by advancing a single base, they have hit a home run. As a result, the Tea Party sees the problem as government regulations which may even the playing field by, say, placing a clean environment and a stable economy ahead of corporate profits.
Their solution: dismantle government. This, Tea Partiers correctly argue, would decrease the influence of Wall Street bankers on the rest of the country, lessening chances of future bailouts.
But while this is important, it is only the “patriotic” item on display to get the rest of us to join their party. Dismantling government would also, as they rarely mention, allow 1% CEO’s and their corporate board members to rake in huge paychecks and profits at stockholder expense, while skewing the system even further in their favor. And if their promising business plan fails - if stockholders lose money - the CEO gets bailed out with a multi-million dollar “golden parachute.” For the 1%, it is a win/win. For the 99%, it looks rather different.
Unlike the Tea Party, the largely younger and poorer Occupiers do not see government as the problem. Rather, they see the problem as anonymous, largely unregulated moneys pouring into the political system - tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars. These prolific donors, in return, seek private favors: a road by their property here, a bridge to nowhere there, the dismantling of an “anti-business” regulation elsewhere Instead of this mentality favoring the 1%, Occupiers want public safeguards put back into place, allowing their government to once again work for the greater good and the middle class.
As these differences have become clearer, the Tea Party, which crested around 30%, has gone into decline while Occupy quickly elicited support from over 60%, which has largely remained in place.
Nor do the differences stop here. Ironically, the Tea Party’s decline began after its big midterm election coup, which saw Republicans sweep in. That’s where Occupy picked up, getting its traction not only from the worsening economy, but also from Republicans’ unalterable opposition to raising taxes on their 1% benefactors. Sadly, the debt ceiling fight and threat of default showed President Obama to be relatively impotent.
The message, says Hacker, “Progress was not going to be made through the normal channels.” A push back had to be made. Someone - or ones - had to wrest the hands of the 1% from our nation’s steering wheel.
And so the Occupy pushed back. The result? Now Obama is echoing Occupy’s spotlight on middle class insecurity as a centerpiece of his reelection campaign, while also winning, in a rout, the payroll tax cut fight.
Still, what has been serving Republicans is the fact that most Americans shun political fighting. Most Americans remain unaware of how the 1% and their highly paid lobbyists, often former government officials now receiving bloated paychecks, shape policy. Point: Newt Gingrich and the $1.6 million his lobbying group received from Freddie Mac - for “historical” research.
But, maybe the tide is changing, thanks to Occupy.
Tea Partiers in particular seem oblivious to the men behind the screen, whose interests, at least short term, often coincide with theirs. Were it not for Occupy’s push back, our national debate would still be focused on cutting government programs such as Medicaid to cut the deficit. Meanwhile, tax cuts and perks such as corporate jets for “job providers” increase their wealth.
It does not have to be this way. Tea Party-based Republicans have more money than political backing, says Hacker. Should Occupiers, working with allies in unions and civic organizations, cause more Americans to see the links between federal policy and their shrinking paychecks, Republicans will lose seats in 2012, he predicts.
Todd Gitlin, Chairman of the PhD Program in Communications at Columbia University and a former President of the 60’s Students for a Democratic Society, largely concurs with Hacker’s assessment. Tea Partiers and their corporate allies, he says, tend to be white, male, Republican - graying, married and financially more comfortable.
“The political system once worked for them, and they think it can be made to do so again,” he said in a phone interview. “They revile government but adore hierarchy. Not for them are the tents and untucked shirts, the tattoos, piercings and dreadlocks they view as anarchistic.”
Many Occupiers, on the other hand, take being called Anarchists as a compliment – a mindset this reporter saw in spades in the drum circle and tables at Zuccotti Park promoting every imaginable cause. That same mindset, says Gitlin, has dominated left-wing protests for half a century.
At its heart, “Anarchism is the idea is that you do not need institutions because the people, properly assembled, properly deliberating even in one square block of Lower Manhattan, can regulate themselves, practicing direct democracy,” he said. “It tends to care about process more than results, and oh, how it loves to talk.”
Occupy’s chief value, Gitlin continued, is that “If we step back and face the enormity of the torrent, then we have taken the first step to imagining what we might want to do about it.”
Anarchy, while exciting, dilutes that message. But, notes Gitlin wryly, “Even anarchists have leaders.”
Unlike Tea Partiers, however, Occupiers do not make centralized decisions. Rather, different groups make dispersed, centrifugal decisions. The result are blurred boundaries, with many, often unknown things happening at once.
Still, Gitlin predicted, the imminence of the 2012 elections will concentrate the Occupiers And with Occupiers already launching major efforts in early primary states including Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, this is already happening.
“There is no model for this movement,” said Gitlin. “It is sprawled and polycentric, opposed to formal leadership.”
Nevertheless, he argues, the most effective leverage is for Occupy elements to converge around particular demands regarding money and politics, progressive taxation and the regulation of banks. “Those who agree would promulgate a Compact with America, resulting in a critical mass,” he said.
Even apart from the caucuses and primaries, we do not have to look too far to see if Gitlin’s prediction comes true; Occupy has already transformed political sensibilities. Gov. Cuomo’s de facto reinstatement of New York’s “millionaire’s tax” is a harbinger of things to come, as was Occupy pressure on Democratic super-committee representatives not to cave to Republicans by cutting entitlements including Social Security. Instead, Democrats allowed that committee to die. The default cuts now scheduled hit military spending more and social programs less. The means may have been messy; the final outcome was a clear win for Occupy.
Occupiers have also displaced Tea Party fife and drum imagery, notes Victor Pickard, Assistant Professor at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. Relying on digital media and spectacle such as encampments and drum circles, Occupiers have successfully fought back against cries of “socialism” to instead facilitate discussion of how the American dream is dying for the 99%.
Pickard parallels Occupy with the 30’s labor movement. “A realization was born amid the Great Depression that the free market could not be relied upon,” he said. As the 1% and their largely Republican allies continue to push for dismantling New Deal reforms, a push which already greased the skids for our current economic fiasco, that historic realization is being reborn. Now, as then, widespread suffering is causing the blinders to come off.
Nor does Pickard fault Occupiers for their anarchy. To the contrary, he said, “It is their decentralized structure which makes them resilient.”
“We do social movements well in this country,” concurs Elizabeth Sanders, Professor of Government at Cornell University, who has studied movements from the 1880’s Farmers Alliance through the present. Nevertheless, she said in a phone interview, Occupy has differed from previous protests.
Movements usually do not start with protests, but with people strategizing in rooms, she said. By contrast, like that Tunisian fruit vendor who inadvertently set off the Arab Spring, Occupy started in the streets, and is belatedly devising a make it up as you go strategy.
This is the reverse from previous movements. But the Arab Spring has toppled long standing governments. And, she says, “It can work if Occupiers stick with consensus economic demands, while jettisoning marginal, controversial issues.”
Focus was key to the success of historical American movements, whether women’s suffrage, racial civil rights, or anti-nuclear proliferation. Should Occupy refine and repeat this formula in this election year, a movement born of push back and anarchy may well rank high in effectiveness.By Joseph Hanania, Aslan Media Columnist