The Tea Party vs. Occupy Wall Street: Guess Which One is the Real Populist Movement
Host David Gregory complained about Occupy Wall Street protestors “demonizing banks” and wondered, “Is this not a reverse tea party tactic?”
Gregory is right. In many respects Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is indeed a mirror image of the Tea Party. To the Tea Party government is the enemy. To OWS the huge corporation is the enemy. OWS wants to raise taxes on billionaires. The Tea Party wants to considerably reduce them. OWS wants to rebuild and strengthen the safety net. The Tea Party wants to weaken it.
Both OWS and the Tea Party are mass movements but their attitude toward the masses couldn’t be more different. OWS and the other #Occupy protests lack leaders and a formal platform, but their demands clearly emerge from the thousands of individual grievances expressed in homemade signs and letters. Mike Konczal at Rortybomb.org did a statistical analysis of 1000 personal statements posted at We are the 99% TUMBLR and found them far less ideological than practical. Their demands effectively boil down to these. “(F)ree us from the bondage of our debts and give us a basic ability to survive.”
From his analysis, Konczal sees the outlines of a program, “Upon reflection, it is very obvious where the problems are. There’s no universal health care to handle the randomness of poor health. There’s no free higher education to allow people to develop their skills outside the logic and relations of indentured servitude. Our bankruptcy code has been rewritten by the top 1% when instead, it needs to be a defense against their need to shove inequality-driven debt at populations. And finally, there’s no basic income guaranteed to each citizen to keep poverty and poor circumstances at bay.”
As one would expect, given its longevity and political impact, the Tea Party does have leaders and a relatively clear program. Probably the best expression of that program occurred when Houston-based attorney Ryan Hecker created a website and invited people to propose ideas for a platform patterned on the Contract for America the Republicans effectively used in 1994 to gain control of the House of Representatives. Some 1,000 ideas were submitted. Ultimately 450,000 people voted online for the final 10 that became the Contract from America.
All parts of this new Contract are intended to shrink government. “Identify the constitutionality of every new law.” “Audit federal agencies for constitutionality.” Demand a federal balanced budget amendment. Reduce taxes.
Starkly absent is any mention of the dangers associated with concentrated private wealth and power.
Faux Populism vs. True Populism
Both OWS and the Tea Party might be described as populist but their definitions of populism wildly diverge. That divergence has been clear from their founding. Occupy Wall Street began on September 7, 2011 with hundreds converging on Wall Street. The Tea Party began on February 19, 2009 with a rant from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. CNBC Business News editor Rick Santelli loudly condemned the government’s plan to help people stay in their homes. “(D)o we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages”? he asked. Santelli suggested holding a tea party for traders to dump derivatives into the Chicago River. Floor traders around him cheered his proposal. The video went viral after the Drudge Report publicized it. Within days, Fox News was discussing the appearance of a new “Tea Party”. A week later coordinated protests under the Tea Party banner took place in over 40 cities.
Santelli’s insistence that those who lose their homes are “losers” who have only themselves to blame is a sentiment widely shared among Tea Party Republicans and most recently expressed by Republican Presidential candidate front runner Herman Cain. When asked about Wall Street protestors Cain, former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza declared, “Don’t blame Wall Street. Don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.”
During a recent CNN televised Republican presidential debate held in front of a Tea Party audience, the moderatorasked Representative Ron Paul what he would do if a healthy 30 year old man decided not to buy health insurance and then had an injury or disease that required hospitalization and surgery. Who would pay for that? Ron Paul said the man was responsible for his actions. He had taken a risk and would have to suffer the consequences. The moderator asked, “Should society just let him die?”. While the Congressman pondered the question, audience members vocally expressed their approval.
This lack of empathy for what OWS would call the 99% is palpable wherever Tea Party Republicans come to power,
In Michigan conservative Republicans gained control last November. The state is home to nearly 2 million people, about 20 percent of the state’s population, who depend on food stamps. Until last month, eligibility was based on income. But this year, even while the state remains mired in the worst recession since the 1930s the Republicans made it much more difficult to qualify for food assistance. Eligibility is now based on assets. Those with assets of more than $5,000 in the bank or who own a vehicle worth more than $15,000 will no longer be eligible.
For Michigan Republicans it is not enough to be poor and needy to qualify for food assistance. You must be destitute.
In the Tea Party era, policy makers in three dozen states have proposed drug testing for people receiving benefits like welfare, unemployment assistance, job training and food stamps.
In 2011, Florida succeeded in passing legislation requiring the drug testing of welfare applicants at the urging of its Governor Rick Scott, who rode to office on a wave of Tea Party support. The roughly 113,000 Florida welfare recipients must pay for their own drug test. People who fail the test become ineligible for a year. A second failed test makes them ineligible for three years. The Economist magazine’s headlines conveyed the elation Tea Party members must have felt with their legislative victory. Drug testing in Florida: their tea-cup runneth over.
Despite Governor Scott’s rhetoric, the poor are not drug addicts. Only about 2 percent of Florida’s welfare applicants are failing the test, according to Florida’s Department of Children and Families. After adding up the savings derived from not paying welfare to this 2 percent and subtracting the cost of testing 100 percent of the applicants the Tampa Tribuneconcluded that Florida may save “up to $40,800 to $60,000 for a program that state analysts have predicted will cost $178 million this fiscal year.
But in Florida or Michigan or a dozen other states, it’s not about saving money. It’s about punishing those who teeter on the economic edge. It’s about making clear that we are not our brothers’ keeper.
OWS does demonize powerful banks. The Tea Party demonizes the poorest and weakest of us all.
For OWS unfairness means taxing billionaires at half the rate their secretaries pay and allowing the top 1% of the population to “earn” as much, collectively, as the bottom 60 percent. For Tea Party Republicans taxes themselves are unfair and inequality is desirable. Indeed, they want to give the 1% even a greater share of the nation’s wealth.
All Republican presidential candidates promise to lower taxes on the rich. Herman Cain has captured the popular conservative imagination with his 9-9-9 plan, a flat tax of 9 percent on the rich and corporations and the imposition of a 9 percent national sales tax on everyone. This would result in a 50-75 percent cut in taxes paid by the richest 1% while imposing a hefty new tax on the 99%. The Citizens for Tax Justice estimates that under Cain’s plan, the bottom 60 percent of taxpayers will pay about $2,000 more in taxes while the richest 1% will pay about $210,000 less.
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 wouldexpect 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.
Which is why high on the list of demands by OWS protestors is to minimize the impact of money on politics and increase the number of people voting.
Tea Partiers again take the opposite position. They defend the right of global corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections and they advocate policies that suppress voter turnout.
“Since Republicans won control of many statehouses last November, more than a dozen states have passed laws requiring voters to show photo identification at polls, cutting back early voting periods or imposing new restrictions on voter registration drives,” the New York Times reported a few weeks back.
A recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law analyzed 19 laws that passed and 2 executive orders that were issued in 14 states this year. The report concludes that these policy changes “could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012.”
Today the Tea Party has the upper hand. With the backing of some of the world’s richest men and most powerful corporations, it has successfully converted the justifiable anger at Wall Street and government inaction into an unprecedented and ahistorical form of populism: a mass uprising against the masses. The Occupy Wall Street movement proposes a populism more compatible with other mass protests, one that doesn’t turn its back on neighbors, one that fights against massive inequality and concentrated private power, and that urges reforms that can once again allow us to have a government of the people, by the people and for the people.