November 03, 2011 News » Cover Story

Tea Party vs. Occupy Wall Street 

A writer and activist looks at two popular movements and recognizes only one as Populist

David Gregory, host of NBC's Meet the Press, recently complained about Occupy Wall Street protesters "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 rortybomb, one of Time magazine's 25 Best Financial Blogs, did a statistical analysis of 1,000 personal statements posted at We are the 99 percent 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. "Reject Cap & Trade." "Demand a Balanced Budget." "Defund, Repeal, & Replace Government-run Health Care." "Stop the Tax Hikes."

Starkly absent is any mention of the dangers associated with concentrated private wealth and power.

Cut what?

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 Sept. 17, 2011, with hundreds converging on Wall Street. The Tea Party began on Feb. 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. He proposed that the Obama administration put up a website that would ask Americans if they "really want to subsidize the losers' mortgages." 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." About 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 GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain. When asked about Wall Street protesters, 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."

During a recent CNN-televised Republican presidential debate held in front of a Tea Party audience, the moderator asked U.S. Rep. Ron Paul what he would do if a healthy 30-year-old man decided not to buy health insurance and then had an injury or disease that required hospitalization and surgery. Who would pay for that? Ron Paul said the man was responsible for his actions. He had taken a risk and would have to suffer the consequences.

The moderator asked, "Are you saying society should just let him die?" While the congressman pondered the question, audience members roared their approval.

This lack of empathy for what OWS would call the 99 percent is palpable wherever Tea Party Republicans come to power.

In Michigan, conservative Republicans gained control last November. The state is home to nearly 2 million people, about 20 percent of the state's population, who depend on food stamps. Until last month, eligibility was based on income. But this year, even while the state remains mired in the worst recession since the 1930s, the Republicans made it much more difficult to qualify for food assistance.

Eligibility is now based on assets. Those with assets of more than $5,000 in the bank or who own a vehicle worth more than $15,000, for instance, will no longer be eligible.

For Michigan Republicans, it is not enough to be poor and needy to qualify for food assistance. You must be destitute.

In the Tea Party era, according to the New York Times, policy makers in three dozen states have proposed drug testing for people receiving benefits like welfare, unemployment assistance, job training and food stamps.

In 2011, Florida succeeded in passing legislation requiring the drug testing of welfare applicants at the urging of Gov. Rick Scott, who rode to office on a wave of Tea Party support. The roughly 113,000 Florida welfare recipients must pay for their own drug test, though their initial welfare payment will cover the cost — assuming they pass. People who fail the test become ineligible for a year, or six months if they can prove they've successfully completed drug treatment. A second failed test makes them ineligible for three years.

The Economist magazine's headlines conveyed the elation Tea Party members must have felt with their legislative victory. Drug testing in Florida: their tea-cup runneth over.

Despite Gov. Scott's rhetoric, the poor are not drug addicts. Only about 2 percent of Florida's welfare applicants are failing the test, according to Florida's Department of Children and Families. After adding up the savings derived from not paying welfare to this 2 percent and subtracting the cost of testing successful applicants, the Tampa Tribune concluded that Florida may save "up to $40,800 to $98,400 for ... a program that state analysts have predicted will cost $178 million this fiscal year." And that's without factoring in staff hours and other resources.

But in Florida or Michigan or a dozen other states, it's not about saving money. It's about punishing those who teeter on the economic edge. It's about making clear that we are not our brothers' keeper.

OWS does demonize powerful banks. The Tea Party demonizes the poorest and weakest of us all.

For OWS, unfairness means taxing billionaires at half the rate their secretaries pay, and allowing the top 1 percent of the population to "earn" as much, collectively, as the bottom 60 percent. For Tea Party Republicans, taxes themselves are unfair, and inequality is desirable. Indeed, they want to give the 1 percent even a greater share of the nation's wealth.

All Republican presidential candidates promise to lower taxes on the rich. Herman Cain has captured the popular conservative imagination with his 9-9-9 plan: a flat 9 percent income tax on everyone, a 9 percent tax for corporations, and a 9 percent national sales tax on everyone. This would result in a 50 percent to 75 percent cut in taxes paid by the richest 1 percent, while imposing a hefty new tax on the 99 percent. Citizens for Tax Justice estimates that under Cain's plan, the bottom 60 percent of taxpayers will pay about $2,000 more in taxes, while the richest 1 percent will pay about $210,000 less.

The Tea Party vision of a future America may have been best expressed by the budget introduced by Tea Party darling and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., last spring and passed enthusiastically by the Republican House. "This is not a budget," Ryan declared at the time. "This is a cause."

Indeed it was, and is. Ryan's plan would cut about $4.3 trillion from programs that primarily benefit the 99 percent, while cutting taxes by about an equal amount, $4.2 trillion. Those cuts would overwhelmingly benefit the 1 percent.

According to Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Ryan's plan "would produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history, while increasing poverty and inequality more than any measure in recent times and possibly in the nation's history."

Even when they agree that federal spending is profligate, OWS and the Tea Party violently disagree on what should be cut. Signs and speeches at Occupy events often target the exorbitant military spending and foreign wars. But despite the fact that the Pentagon is the poster child for government waste and incompetence, not to mention corruption, it is also the only part of the government that much of the Tea Party (like the establishment GOP) considers all but off-limits.

Right and might

The Tea Party hates the very idea of government, embracing Ronald Reagan's famous dictum, "Government is the problem." OWS also sees government as an enemy when democracy has been corrupted by money and government has been captured by corporations.

The Declaration of Principles adopted by the general assembly of Occupy Wall Street in its first days makes this clear: "... no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments."

As Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz observed in a piece this year for Vanity Fair, government increasingly is the 1 percent.

"Virtually all U.S. senators, and most of the representatives in the House, are members of the top 1 percent when they arrive, are kept in office by money from the top 1 percent, and know that if they serve the top 1 percent well they will be rewarded by the top 1 percent when they leave office. When pharmaceutical companies receive a trillion-dollar gift — through legislation prohibiting the government, the largest buyer of drugs, from bargaining over price — it should not come as cause for wonder. It should not make jaws drop that a tax bill cannot emerge from Congress unless big tax cuts are put in place for the wealthy. Given the power of the top 1 percent, this is the way you would expect the system to work."

But OWS also knows that government is the only vehicle through which the majority can fashion rules that increase personal security and restrain unbridled greed and private power. If we give up on government, we give up on our ability to collectively influence our future.

Which is why high on the list of demands by OWS protestors is to minimize the impact of money on politics and increase the number of people voting.

Tea Partiers again take the opposite position. They defend the right of global corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections, and they advocate policies that suppress voter turnout.

"Since Republicans won control of many statehouses last November, more than a dozen states have passed laws requiring voters to show photo identification at polls, cutting back early voting periods or imposing new restrictions on voter registration drives," the New York Times reported recently.

A recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law analyzed 19 laws that passed and two executive orders that were issued in 14 states this year. The report concludes that these policy changes "could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012."

Today the Tea Party has the upper hand. With the backing of some of the world's richest men and most powerful corporations, it has converted the justifiable anger at Wall Street and government inaction into an unprecedented and a historical form of populism: a mass uprising against the masses.

The Occupy Wall Street movement proposes a populism more compatible with other mass protests, one that doesn't turn its back on neighbors, one that fights against massive inequality and concentrated private power, and that urges reforms that can once again allow us to have a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

David Morris is co-founder and vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, Minn., and director of its New Rules project, which advocates for building community "by supporting humanly scaled politics and economics." Follow his writings at defendingthepublicgood.org.

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