There are stark differences between the groups, of course, most decidedly in terms of their methods and goals. But it’s the similarities that matter, especially if the movements are to have any lasting impact on U.S. fiscal policy and the overall political process.
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At their core, both groups formed in response to populist anger in the wake of the U.S. government’s decision in 2008 to bail out the nation’s largest banks. In an effort to stave off what policy makers at the time felt was the impending collapse of the global economy, Congress approved using hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to prop up banks deemed “too big to fail.”
The Tea Party organized in 2009 and gained momentum through nationwide rallies and widespread media coverage. By the fall of 2010 Tea Party-backed candidates were appearing on Congressional ballot boxes across the country, their platforms unified in their disgust for excessive government spending in general and taxpayer-backed bailouts in particular, not least those targeting big banks.
Incumbent candidates who voted for the bailouts -- Democrat, Republican, it didn’t matter -- were excoriated for their support.
In Utah, for example, long-time Republican Senator Robert Bennett lost a re-election bid after a bruising campaign that included group jeers by Tea Party hecklers who chanted “TARP, TARP, TARP” (the acronym for the bank bailout program) at his campaign events.
The Tea Party was widely credited with not only shifting power in the House of Representatives that fall from Democratic to Republican, but with altering the debate in Washington, D.C., shifting the focus to curbing government spending and lowering the massive U.S. debt.
Occupy Wall Street jumped on the bandwagon only recently, encamping in a Lower Manhattan park in late September, just a block away from the symbolic home of their perceived enemies.
The methods they’ve employed so far to make their point (generally that the system is rigged against anyone not rich enough to buy a politician) differ in the extreme from those of the well-organized Tea Party. There are no leaders and there are no specific policy demands.
That lack of organization and an articulated set of goals has led to skepticism that the movement can gain sustained momentum, as well as criticism that a significant faction of the Occupy Wall Street protesters are nothing more than gadflies, dilettantes and ne’er-do-wells.
Conversations with protesters confirm the diffuse nature of their grievances. A twenty-something from upstate New York is angry that he’s five-figures in debt to student loans yet he can’t find a job, let alone one in his chosen field. A California-retiree in her 60s has flown in to join the protest because, she said, too many friends and family members are losing their homes to foreclosure. A bunch of union guys are there because they feel unions are being “scapegoated,” citing as proof numerous examples of state legislatures across the country demanding that public employee unions renegotiate contracts and scale back their pension benefits.
Virtually without exception, protesters who are willing to share their specific grievances inevitably connect their anger to the bailouts of the big Wall Street banks.
If perceived economic inequality is the protesters’ broad condemnation of the American political and economic system, the proof they unanimously offer in defense of their criticism goes something like this: greedy Wall Street bankers nearly ruined the country three years ago. They were then bailed out by corrupt politicians, and now the greedy bankers are back it again. Meanwhile, average Americans who can’t find a job are getting thrown out of their homes.
Many conversations at Zuccotti Park, the New York epicenter of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has now spread to dozens of U.S. cities and a handful in Europe, end with the phrase, often expressed with caustic irony, “Where’s my bailout?”
“They’re not that divergent,” concedes Josh Eboch, who manages conservative-aimed campaigns for the non-profit activist group Freedom Works, referring to the central themes espoused by Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party.
“I think one of the most important similarities is that we’re all against corporatism, or the idea that large banks or big businesses, they know the right people in Washington so they’re able to get the taxpayer dollars,” he said.
Indeed, in a recent blog post Eboch chided the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators not for their lack of a message but for being Johnny Come Latelies to the Tea Party’s message, writing, “virtually their entire list of grievances against crony capitalism and bank bailouts has been plagiarized straight from the Tea Party’s platform, which is now nearly three years old.”
In an interview Eboch is quick to point out the differences between the two: “I think that the model we’ve demonstrated is more effective. It’s incrementalism. But that’s how you achieve change within a stable society. We’d like to avoid the revolution it seems these people are calling for.”
The problem for anyone hoping that these disparate groups of activists might send a unified message that will resonate in Washington and actually affect some change lies in the respective solutions the two groups view as plausible.
Members of Occupy Wall Street appear to strongly support measures to impose higher taxes on the rich. The demonstrators (those who don’t advocate outright revolution, anyway) have also spoken out in favor of tougher regulations on the banking industry to prevent another financial crisis.
The Tea Party has been crystal clear – fewer taxes, less government.
“So even when they identify similar problems, their proposed solutions are different,” said Steve Malanga, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank.
Imagine what might happen if the two movements united.