Occupy Wall Street: lessons and opportunities

The Occupy movement in the United States is both similar to and different from its Tea Party predecessor. The precise combination gives it political space to grow, says Cas Mudde.
Cas Mudde
12 October 2011

If 2010 was the year of the Tea Party, 2011 is becoming the year of the Occupy movement. What started as a small local project of fed-up grassroots (non-)activists - an "occupation" of New York's Wall Street - has now spread throughout the United States (and even into Canada). There are important similarities and significant differences between the two mass movements. A sketch of these suggests that the newer movement has opportunities to grow.

The overlaps 

The first similarity is the two movements' self-generating, bottom-up origin. The Tea Party (reluctant as many progressives are to admit it) mushroomed from local activists often with no ties to any major rightwing organisation; equally, Occupy Wall Street is not a creation of the Democratic Party, the trade unions, or even existing progressive networks such as Move On. True, many participants might have traditional allegiances to several of these organisations (as with the Tea Party and the Republican Party or the Christian right); but the Occupy movement is in no way under any external control.

Second, the institutionalised ideological "brethren" have in each case reacted in a confused and at times even hostile way to the upstart. The Republican Party, in particular, was slow to embrace the Tea Party; today there are still many prominent party members who are, either vocally or sotto voce, critical of the phenomenon. The Democratic Party is for its part waiting to see how the Occupy movement develops; prominent figures such as President Obama and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi guardedly express qualified support for it, but no more. Some unions have become involved, but the union establishment keeps its distance.

Third, the (social) media plays a crucial role in the growth of the movements, not least in making these initially local initiatives "look" national - and thus helping them to become national. There is no progressive equivalent to the conservative Fox News, which was instrumental in making the Tea Party a national phenomenon; but media outlets like Democracy Now and the Huffington Post, as well as social-media groups like The Other 98% (coordinated through Facebook and Twitter), are instrumental in spreading the Occupy movement to places thousands of miles away from Wall Street.

Fourth, neither the Tea Party nor Occupy Wall Street has a clear political agenda. They express above all a particular anger, a negative emotion, rather than a constructive political programme. This is of great value in helping the movements to mobilise a broad range of people with often diverse (even opposing) views in terms of goals and means, though it also means that any practical advance or achievement of real power would inevitably lead to internal division. That this can become a reality very quickly, and undermine the movement's unity, is apparent in the Tea Party's development.

Fifth, both movements are largely "old wine in new bottles" in the sense that they express long-standing issues and sentiments, but in response to very recent phenomena. The Tea Party mobilises attitudes and instincts which libertarian and (neo)-conservative currents have articulated for decades, though in the immediate context of the United States's economic crisis (and interventionist policy to manage it) and the US's first black president. The Occupy movement too voices slogans reminiscent of the anti-globalisation movements of the 1990s and the anti-war protests of the post-2001 years, but puts them to use in denouncing the current failures of financial capitalism.

The contrasts 

There are also some crucial differences between the two movements, which in part reflect the diverse recent fortunes of the broader conservatives and progressive movements in the United States.

The first difference is that the Tea Party is both the beneficiary and the victim of the enormous current power of America's conservative movement. While supportive organisations like Fox News and FreedomWorks have given the Tea Party unprecedented exposure, by framing its message they have also to a degree tamed it. The weakness of the contemporary progressive movement means that this will not be possible in the case of the Occupy movement.

Second, the respective relationships between the grassroots movements and the larger political infrastructure are different. The Tea Party is the latest in a lengthy sequence of successful conservative mobilisations, which had before its emergence already shifted the power within the American rightwing. Thus the Tea Party found a reasonably favourable ear within the Republican Party and broader conservative institutions (think-tanks and political action committees [PACs], for example), which had been moving to the right at least since the 1980s.

This is in sharp contrast to the Occupy movement, which is dealing with a highly centrist Democratic Party and a dwindling progressive subculture, both increasingly detached from the grassroots. It is therefore very doubtful that the Occupy movement can succeed in the kind of impressive "revolution" within the Democratic Party (let alone the country) that the Tea Party was able to do vis-à-vis the Republican Party.

The opportunities 

Yet the lack of institutional connections and of a powerful progressive infrastructure need not be a handicap to the Occupy movement. Both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street voice anti-establishment sentiment directed (at least in theory) toward both major parties. The Tea Party, however, aligns itself decidedly with the Republican Party, while the Occupy movement is still independent from the Democratic Party. This gives it opportunities to create new alignments, and realignments, within American society. Here are three suggestions.

First, the Occupy movement could reach out to religious leaders and organisations, which are (wrongly) considered to be staunchly within the rightwing camp. The historian Michael Kazin has forcefully demonstrated that the separation of the "left" and the "religious" is a fairly modern phenomenon within the United States, a country where religious leaders and groups have been important factors in all major progressive movements. Today, decades of growing financial disparities and almost continuous war have led many religious people and organisations to turn away from conservative movements and the Republican Party and refocus on socio-economic rather than socio-cultural issues. The time is ripe for the left to build links here.

Second, the Occupy movement can reach out to the non-organised (or better, the "non-institutionalised"). The weakness of the Democratic Party is that it caters to highly organised groups, which sometimes reflect struggles from a different era. In line with institutional inertia, these ties keep new issues from the agenda, or reframe them in partly dated terms (think about the frustrating struggle of transgender activists, who had to go through women or gay organisations and frames to get their voice heard). Social media in particular enable people and movements to establish links in the absence of well-established institutions; although they are not always able to mobilise with the same extensiveness and durability.

Third, the Occupy movement could also take a lesson from the Christian right, which was largely ignored at the national level (even by Ronald Reagan and to a lesser extent George W Bush) but became a major political actor at state and local levels. Progressives have an ideological urge to focus all their energies at the federal level, as policy change here has (potentially) the biggest impact on equality.

In practice, several of the Occupy movement's main issues are best dealt with at the federal (or even global) level. The problem is that this is also the hardest level to generate serious change. Yet successful local and state initiatives are regularly adopted at the federal level in one form or another. Hence, rather than trying to centralise the various Occupy "chapters", the movement would do better to make the most of its grassroots strength and encourage and highlight local- and state-level initiatives.

A final recommendation is of a negative kind: the Occupy movement is well advised to keep its distance from the Democratic Party. A third party is not a viable alternative, at least nationally, but many of the movement’s concerns find local support across the political spectrum (including among many Tea Partiers, who express similar anti-Wall Street sentiments). A strong partisan profile would lead to the Occupy movement being ignored by the Republican Party and taken for granted by the Democratic Party, thus seriously undermining the movement’s political leeway.

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