People with many different viewpoints have been comparing the Occupy Wall Street movement to the Tea Party. Some of the mainstream media make the comparison with a very broad brush, seeing them both as manifestations of distrust and anger with “the system” – a view refuted in this excellent analysis by David Callahan on the Demos.org website. In reality, the worldviews and purposes of OWS are very different from those of the Tea Party. As Callahan points out, the Tea Party has a generally pro-big business, anti-regulation agenda, while OWS is clearly directed at taking power away from Wall Street.
Meanwhile, a lot of progressives are wondering whether OWS will be “our” Tea Party – a movement that fires up voters, puts some backbone in the Democratic Party (and maybe even in President Obama), and gets a progressive agenda back into Washington.
I’d been wondering that myself. But now I’ve come to the conclusion that the differences between OWS and the Tea Party are more important than the similarities. The similarities are largely formal: use of social media, especially Meet-up, leading to the spontaneous rapid organizing of grassroots groups and actions.
As for differences, the obvious one is political direction, as I said above. But another difference is also very important: from the beginning, the Tea Party has been focused on electoral politics. They arose as a reaction to the Stimulus bill (American Recovery and Reinvesment Act) in early 2009, grew in opposition to Obama’s health care plan, and got their first victory from supporting Republican Scott Brown’s successful campaign for the US Senate from Massachusetts. What really made people take notice was the 2010 Republican primaries and state conventions, where Tea Party candidates defeated several favorites of the Republican establishment. Some of those candidates went on to defeat – but the Tea Party had sent a strong message that while Republicans might not win with them, they would definitely lose without them. The party noticed, and the Tea Party agenda dominates the House of Representatives.
OWS is not like that at all. Despite some calls from electoral activists to “Occupy the Ballot Box,” they are just not talking about elections and politicians. I just spent 75 minutes listening to an audio recording of the Occupy Boston General Assembly the night of October 8 – when police had demolished a camp and arrested 140 protesters the night before – and while there was condemnation of Boston’s mayor for ordering the arrests, there was no discussion at all of elections.
OWS has a broader and deeper goal: they want to change the agenda, not of Congress, but of the American people. They want the 99% to be taken seriously; and they want to create a means by which the voice of the 99% can be heard. Sure, that may have an electoral effect, but it won’t be because OWS organizes people to vote for their candidates. It will be because we all come to realize that we have a right to expect something better.