Why Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party Are Comparable

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My TIME colleague Ishaan Tharoor has done the interwebbing proud by writing a blog post that tries to counterspin the growing political spin–most recently from President Obama–describing the liberal Occupy Wall Street movement as similar in kind to the conservative Tea Party movement. Provocative, no doubt, and just what the moment ordered. But since I am a proponent of the original spin, one whom Tharoor calls out by name, I felt a response was in order.

Tharoor calls his post, “Why You Shouldn’t Compare Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party,” which is almost certainly a mistake. After all, he has taken the time to write an entire post comparing Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party, so I won’t doubt his commitment to the enterprise. What he seems to mean is “Why Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party Are Incomparable.” To defend this thesis he offers four “more relevant truths” about the Occupy movement.

Before we get to these, let me clarify the subject of debate. No one is arguing that the Tea Party and the Occupy protests have the same goals, ideological backing, demographic makeup or worldview. The primary “comparable” argument looks at the two movements’ structures, origins and effects. The “comparable” camp posits that both movements are ideological reactions to the same underlying socioeconomic conditions that function in similar ways. As President Obama put it today, “In some ways, they’re not that different from some of the protests that we saw coming from the Tea Party.  Both on the left and the right, I think people feel separated from their government. They feel that their institutions aren’t looking out for them.” More specifically, there is a common anger at powerful institutions–the banks, Wall Street, the media, elected representatives in Washington–that has been filtered through different ideological lenses.

The Tea Party blames too much government and a large national debt for the problems. The Occupy protesters blame too few government regulations in the financial sector and too little taxation of the wealthiest. As for structure, both the Tea Party and Occupy are open-sourced populist outpourings, brands without any clear leadership, with significant dependence on new media to organize, and a deep commitment to participatory democracy. As a result, they both have significant political potency to mobilize and persuade the general public.

But instead of criticizing these claims, Tharoor takes after straw men, as if the “comparable” camp was blind to any difference at all. And so we get the first truth: “Occupy Wall Street is an expression of a global phenomenon.” This seems to be an argument about a difference in scope, not kind. He goes on to argue that the Tea Party had a distinctly nationalistic flair that the Occupy movement lacks. This is certainly true. But it is also true that the American right has a distinctly nationalistic flair that the American left lacks. Are these differences in kind, or differences rooted in the two movements’ distinct ideologies? I would argue the latter. The American right seeks a return to American supremacy. The American left, traditionally, is more interested in equality, both at home and abroad. The Washington Redskins and the New England Patriots, to try another metaphor, wear different jerseys and employ different offensive strategies. But they are both football teams.

The second truth: “Occupy Wall Street is fueled by youth.” Indeed. It is also more racially diverse. It has more Democrats. It is more urban. It almost certainly contains more graduate degrees, and more folks with union cards. Occupy is, in fact, demographically different from the Tea Party in just about all the ways that the left is demographically different from the right. But then no one said they were the same people in the streets. In fact, the youthful faces in the crowd played a major role in my original comparison of Occupy and the Tea Party.

The third truth: “Occupy Wall Street may prove much harder to co-opt into the political mainstream.” This is informed speculation based on a false assumption. The Republican party never co-opted the Tea Party. The Tea Party roiled the Republican Party, knocking off sure things for sport in the 2010 primaries. To this day, Speaker John Boehner can’t count on the Tea Party to turn off the lights at night. Tea Party adherents in Congress shot down his debt limit grand bargain this summer, shot down his compromise bill after he abandoned the grand bargain, and more recently embarrassed him in a simple budgetary vote. What the Tea Party did do was create a wave of enthusiasm that lifted Republican candidates and ideas between 2009 and 2010. The Tea Party narrative–big government, high deficits–dominated the political discussion for years, in large part because of the rebellious tricorns in the streets. This is just the space that the Occupy movement is now entering. Since those kids in Zuccotti Park started grabbing headlines, the political debate in this county has focused on wealth distribution, Wall Street regulation and high-income taxation. That’s the similarity.

The fourth truth, once again, tries to recast the ideological differences between the left and the right as a difference in kind: “Occupy Wall Street still believes in politics and government.” Right again. But then this debate over the role of government is, more than anything else, the defining difference between the left and the right.

So the truths consumed, we have successfully established that the Tea Party is not liberal and that it differs from Occupy Wall Street in the types of people it inspires, the demands those people have have, and the geographic scope of its appeal. But those differences alone won’t stop the comparisons. The comparisons endure.