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The Tea Party vs. Occupy Wall Street: Guess Which One is the Real Populist Movement

OWS demonizes powerful banks. The Tea Party demonizes the poorest and weakest of us all.

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The Tea Party vision of a future America may have been best expressed by the budget introduced last spring by Tea Party darling Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) last spring and passed enthusiastically by the Republican House. “This is not a budget,” Ryan  declared at the time. “This is a cause.”

Indeed it was, and is. Ryan’s plan would  cut about $4.3 trillion from programs that primarily benefit the 99% while cutting taxes by about and equal amount, $4.2 trillion, cuts that would overwhelmingly benefit the 1%.  According to Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Ryan’s plan “would produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history, while increasing poverty and inequality more than any measure in recent times and possibly in the nation’s history.”

Even when they agree that federal spending is profligate, OWS and the Tea Party violently disagree on what should be cut. Signs and speeches at #Occupy events often target the exorbitant military spending and foreign wars. But despite the fact that the Pentagon is the  poster child for government waste and incompetence, not to mention corruption, it is also the only part of the government the Tea Party considers all but off limits.

As soon as Republicans took over the House of Representatives in November 2010, they changed the rules so that military spending does not have to be offset by reduced spending somewhere else, unlike any other kind of government spending. It is the only activity of government Republicans believe does not have to be paid for. The Tea Party’s ascendance has only strengthened the Republicans’ resolve that the Pentagon’s budget is untouchable. An  analysis by the Heritage Foundation of Republican votes on defense spending found that Tea Party freshmen were even more likely than their Republican elders to vote against cutting any part of the military budget.

The Use and Abuse of Government

The Tea Party hates the very idea of government, embracing Ronald Reagan’s famous dictum, “Government is the problem.” OWS also sees government as an enemy when democracy has been corrupted by money and government has been captured by corporations. The Declaration of Principles  adopted by the general assembly of Occupy Wall Street in its first days makes this clear, “…no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.”

As Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz observes government increasingly is the 1%.

Virtually all U.S. senators, and most of the representatives in the House, are members of the top 1 percent when they arrive, are kept in office by money from the top 1 percent, and know that if they serve the top 1 percent well they will be rewarded by the top 1 percent when they leave office….When pharmaceutical companies receive a trillion-dollar gift—through legislation prohibiting the government, the largest buyer of drugs, from bargaining over price—it should not come as cause for wonder. It should not make jaws drop that a tax bill cannot emerge from Congress unless big tax cuts are put in place for the wealthy. Given the power of the top 1 percent, this is the way you would expect the system to work.

But OWS also knows that government is the only vehicle through which the majority can fashion rules that increase personal security and restrain unbridled greed and private power. If we give up on government we give up on our ability to collectively influence our future.

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