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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.

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 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.”

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