Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party: bedfellows?

The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are expressions of pain from differing points of view of the same social process, says Lawrence Rosenthal
Lawrence Rosenthal
4 November 2011

There is something fundamental that links the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements.

The Tea Party has mobilised around a sense of what’s being taken away from them. Occupy Wall Street is mobilising around a sense of what they will never have.

In both cases the object in question is more or less the same: the middle class life that has been enjoyed by substantial numbers of Americans for a couple of generations.

The Tea Party

The Tea Party feels under attack. In their view they represent the “real Americans” who have worked hard, achieved comfort and security and, with respect to entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, are merely getting what they have earned.

They feel besieged by the “undeserving”—those who, unlike themselves, don’t work and yet, in Tea Partiers’ eyes, are demanding what they, the Tea Partiers, have earned.

In “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” Skocpol and her fellow researchers identify “deservingness” as the Tea Partiers’ key discriminator between themselves and those they—so furiously—oppose. For years the Right in America has attacked the “liberal elites” who “think they know better” and “want to tell us how to live.” The extraordinary force that the Tea Party has brought to American politics has been to combine this resentment of liberalism with the Tea Party’s urgent sense of dispossession—that now liberals and the groups they coddle want not just to tell the Tea Partiers what’s good for them, they want to take away what they have and give it to the undeserving.

It can be easy to miss this nut of reality—the reaction to economic decline—in the waves of rhetoric that have emerged from the Tea Party movement. There are good reasons for this. One is the place of big and rich Republican donors, long interested in promoting policies of tax cuts and small government, in bankrolling and guiding, as best they can, the direction of the movement.

Also at work in muddling the sources of Tea Party discontent are legacies of historic right-wing ideology that help shape both thinking and rhetoric among Tea Partiers. The opposite numbers to the “real Americans” are Un-Americans, an epithet with its origins in perceptions of treasonous consorting with the enemy. The Tea Party has imported this extreme antipathy, including regarding the political opposition as enemies or traitors, to domestic affairs. Hence the charge of “Socialist” (and worse) about Democrats and liberals. In effect, the Tea Partiers suffer the intensely unwelcome sentiment that they are now living under a sort of occupation—rule by the Un-Americans, led by the Un-American-in-Chief, Barack Obama, foreign-born, Muslim, Other.

All this gets summarised in a borrowing from the “don’t tread on me” tradition of the American Right. Here the individualism of American society is celebrated as its highest virtue, the view of oneself as a free and unencumbered agent the very definition of “Liberty.” The Tea Party’s material gripes, like the fleeting quality of life that seems to be ripped from them, has been conflated with “Liberty” itself. It is as though Liberty, like benefits of the welfare state, is a zero-sum, not an expanding, entity: If it is to be offered to others, mine is certain to be diminished. Crimes Against Liberty: An Indictment of President Barack Obama by David Limbaugh is but one of a shelf-full of books where Tea Partiers and their sympathisers propound this root conviction.

Occupy Wall Street

Who—which undeserving liberal constituencies—are dispossessing the Tea Party?

There are the well-known undeserving malefactors who have become objects of Tea Party-supported legislative and judicial initiatives. These groups include public employees and immigrants. But in addition, as the Skocpol group discovered, there are the young: In interviews, many Tea Party activists describe the young as less responsible than earlier generations.

Charles says, “My grandson, he’s fourteen and he asked me: ‘Why should I work, why can’t I just get free money?’” An April 2009 blog on the Greater Boston Tea Party website entitled “Oh SNAP! Food stamps for College Kids?” begins “Call me crazy, but when I needed money for college, I got a job.” After telling the story of her nephew, Nancy concludes, “I think that a lot of (young) people . . . they just feel like they are entitled.”

Never mind that the young have had but the most limited opportunity to prove their deservingness, they still don’t get a pass from the Tea Party.

Yet the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street (OWS) are expressions of pain from differing points of view of the same social process. This process has been the dismantling of American middle class life. This is sometimes called the American Dream. Sometimes the American Deal. Or the Fordist Deal.  It was the essential quality of the working lives of the so-called ‘greatest generation’: the expansive home-owning world that generation stepped into after returning from World War II.

It is a deal that has been undergoing a slow-motion erosion since the first oil shock of 1973. One example of this unfolding erosion: over these years, even conservatives most closely tied to a notion of the “traditional family” have come to accept the two-earner family. It’s now an economic given. Not so for the middle class of the 50s, 60s and early 70s.

In environmental science, disasters sometimes develop slowly and burst out in spectacular ways at particular moments, blindsiding the unsuspecting. Think about the Cuyahoga River. In the late 60s it caught fire in Cleveland. Stunning. A Shock. A river aflame! Yet for years previously, the river had been filling with sludge. By the end, just before the fire, you couldn’t put a hand in the river and not come out without it solidly covered in black gunk. Then it burst into flame.

The great financial meltdown of 2008 was like the eruption of the Cuyahoga River: a shocking explosion at the end of a slow motion process of decay, masked till its eruption. In its final stage before the financial meltdown, the erosion of middle class life was masked by easy credit, in particular, the ability of homeowners to borrow against what seemed like the continuous upward valuations of their property. In September of 2008, this all came apart. The financial river caught fire. Millions would find themselves underwater on their homes—owing more than the home’s current value; grinding recession and large-scale, long-term unemployment was on the horizon.

The explosion of the financial crisis came toward the end of the working lives of most of the Tea Party. Everything they had earned, suddenly, was insecure. The feeling was, it was being taken away—by the undeserving and their liberal political allies.

For Occupy Wall Street, the financial crisis came at the beginning of their working lives. Their prospects for housing, for adequate wages, for the mere opportunity to pay off their student loans—all this was bleak, and worse.

The United Autoworkers (UAW) were the iconic beneficiaries of the Fordist Deal, realizing both stable blue-collar jobs and middle class levels of affluence. The 2009 bailouts of Chrysler and General Motors were anathema to the Tea Party and one of the notable successes of the Obama Administration’s response to the financial crisis. Yet recent negotiations have resulted in new UAW contracts that have firmly institutionalised a two-tier system where new workers will earn half of veteran workers, about $14 an hour. This comes to about $30,000 a year. The UAW bellwether has now gone from working at a middle class level to working at the level of the working poor.

Not only is this situation clear to OWS, so is its corollary: that this decline is a reflection of a level of income and wealth inequality that has now reached 1920s levels. The benefits of impoverishing the middle class are accruing to what OWS calls the “one percent.” American capitalism has been financialised and disfigured so that a small few seem to be gaining from a system that appears rigged, or a system they themselves have gamed.

When the Tea Party looks at the situation, they see undeserving demands by workers unlike themselves. But the economic crisis in the U.S. is perhaps too encompassing for Tea Partiers’ Us versus Them conviction to be sustained much longer. As the crisis has continued it has become less and less bounded by racial, gender and even class immunities. American suburbs are filling up with 40 to 60 year old men who have been earning a hundred thousand dollars a year and more, but who have become part of the long-term unemployed, and are realizing, achingly, that their days of such affluence are never coming back.

American political traditions and rhetoric, especially those of the conservative era of American politics ushered in by the Reagan election of 1980, very much stand in the way of groups as different in self-conception as the Tea Party and OWS to realise commonality of interests. There is a natural opening from the side of OWS—defining oneself as part of the 99% is an open invitation to all comers. Yet OWS is also wide open to the possibility of hijacking by ideological leftists, where spokespersons for the movement slide from the economy into war and peace, race, climate, oil, gender, and so on, insisting it’s all “one struggle.” Something like that happened to the stirrings of an antiwar movement around the American invasion of Iraq. Interestingly, the Tea Party, which was open to such undermining from the Right—remember brandishing arms at the boisterous Town Hall meetings of summer 2009—has managed rather successfully to keep its movement on point and marginalise its extreme.

But the Tea Party needs to have a bigger shift in consciousness than OWS to recognise their affinity with OWS. Identity is too deeply involved in the Tea Party’s understanding of themselves to be cast off without considerable resistance. OWS organised itself on the basis of its recognition of its interests, and the community that it represents grew up around those interests. The Tea Party defined itself first in opposition to the presidency of Barack Obama, to the liberal Other, and its ability to articulate its positions followed from that fundamental statement of identity. To see their lot as coincident with OWS would be like a vegan getting down at a barbeque.

But, as Americans like to say, “Reality bats last.” Overcoming all that stands between the Tea Party and OWS: A stretch, yes. Impossible, no.

Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party, co-edited by Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost, will be published by Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012














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