Occupy Wall Street is not the Tea Party of the Left. Those trying to predict the movement’s impact should stop wondering whether the protesters will adopt “clear demands” and look instead at strategy and structure. Pundits speculate the movement might sweep into power in Congress, as the Tea Party did in 2010. But for many of the protesters, winning the upcoming elections or passing bills is not the goal of the movement. They have a deeper discontent, struggling against the very structure of modern American society.
The Tea Party knew what it wanted immediately and took it. Far from a motley crew, the Tea Party is actually a highly regimented election machine run by some of the sharpest conservative political operatives in the country, which has harnessed the power of corporate money and grassroots organizing to relentlessly push a single legislative goal: cut everything. Occupy Wall Street’s greatest strength, its democratic spontaneity, is also a natural disadvantage that will keep it from ever becoming the Tea Party. But it could rival it by forming membership organizations to sustain networks of supporters, using an electoral strategy run by experienced progressive strategists, and rallying around spokespeople who can powerfully convey the vision of the movement.
Politicians are driven by fear and opportunity. Members of Congress will not take action unless they fear Occupy Wall Street as they did the Tea Party. If OWS rejects a legislative/electoral strategy, its absence in November 2012 will not be the fault of the protesters, but the fault of establishment progressive politicians, donors, and strategists for sitting on the sidelines.
The difference is not in type of strategy, but in the existence of a centralized strategy itself. Beneath the surface the Tea Party is run by veteran Republican Party political operatives, such as Dick Armey, who runs FreedomWorks. It is funded with a deep war chest from long-time Republican campaign donors like the Koch brothers. These strategists were the architects of the monumental grassroots pressure during the summer of 2009 that put healthcare reform on life support. They crafted the talking points that shouted down Democratic members of Congress in town hall meetings across America and jammed the phone lines on Capitol Hill. By November 2010, they had built powerful voter mobilization networks of canvassers and phonebankers, and recruited, trained, and funded candidates that swept Congress, knocking out Democrats and traditional Republicans alike.
Veteran Republican politicians like John McCain dropped their moderate leanings and moved to the right, fearing more conservative primary challengers. Democrats in swing districts feared the power of the Tea Party’s electoral machine even more. Even the Republican congressional leadership feared the threat of rebellion from the Tea Party Caucus at any hint of moderation. The Tea Party pushed their demands relentlessly, through ruthless brinksmanship over default on the national debt, government shutdown, unemployment insurance, even hurricane disaster relief. And they won big again and again, forcing trillions of dollars in cuts.
Congress does not fear Occupy Wall Street the way they feared the Tea Party. The feeble lip service of Democrats and the scornful shrugs of Republicans show they feel no urgency to meet their demands. This is not an underestimation of their strength, but a calculation of their strategy. OWS is built on disillusionment with Washington that may extend all the way to the ballot box. No one can be sure how many of the protestors will even vote in November, let alone build something like the Tea Party’s campaign juggernaut.
It’s impossible to foresee what impact the movement will have on the next election, but without a significant change of direction, it may be almost none. If this happens, don’t blame the occupying protesters. They aren’t the cause of a lack of faith in government, they are a symptom. We should blame the James Carvilles for not building electoral campaigns around this movement, and blame the George Soros’s for not funding its operations. Michelle Bachmann formed the Tea Party Caucus four months before the elections that swept the Tea Party into power. A charismatic young progressive member of Congress should be forming the “99% Caucus” in Congress right now.
The Tea Party gained influence even before the election because members knew that it would soon be at their doorstep. They were already feeling the mounting pressure of citizens who packed their events and flooded their offices with calls. This gave Tea Party organizers short-term victories, such as the watering down of health care reform and the abandonment of capping carbon emissions.
Short-term victories keep up the momentum in social movements, energizing participants who can easily lose focus or faith in their own efforts. People participating in the political process for the first time can be inspired by a new movement they identify with, but easily let down when it runs up against the wall of political inertia.
We’ll see if the Occupy Wall Street movement can win any short-term victories. It will need a clear immediate battle to focus on. This is much more important than whether or not they choose to develop a laundry list platform of demands. If they choose not to take up a legislative agenda, they could use direct action tactics like recruiting millions to switch from banks to credit unions.
If they do want to take up battles over specific legislation, like the Tea Party did with health care reform, it will require them to be feared and respected in Congress. They will need to create a situation where Democrats are genuinely afraid that if they don’t stand behind a dramatic increase in taxes on the richest 1% of Americans, they will be thrown out by a popular primary challenger from the left. Republicans in swing districts will need to be afraid that if they don’t vote against their party, a grassroots opponent will mobilize volunteers and energize donors to take their seat.
This is unlikely to happen with OWS without a significant shift in direction. They would need one short-term issue focus, a few Congressional champions to write legislation for them, a strategy for pressuring members of Congress to vote their way, and the electoral muscle to back up their threats if they don’t.
The Tea Party has a key advantage over Occupy Wall Street: easy messaging. The Tea Party has a message of destruction. Get rid of government. Take it out with a chainsaw, not with a scalpel. They don’t care how, they just want it big and they want it now. $200 billion is better than $100 billion in budget cuts. $300 billion is better than $200 billion. They don’t need a ten-point platform. They have a one-point platform.
What does OWS want? Do they want higher taxes on the top 1% for deficit reduction, job creation, social services, or lower taxes on the rest of us? The weakening of corporate influence in Washington? Stronger financial reform to prevent another meltdown? Or do they want a society that simply gets rid of big financial institutions? Do they envision the ultimate overthrow of modern multinational corporate capitalism and a return to simple regional economies, expansive social safety nets, or some sort of cooperative system?
The truth is, “they” don’t want anything. Individual people within the movement want different things—they are each disparate pixels in a picture that has yet to emerge in clarity. Whether or not to draft up specific demands is one of the main contentions between rival camps within the movement.
Of course the minute details of financial regulation or campaign finance reform should be worked out by legislators and policy experts. They can analyze the Volcker Rule and leverage ratios and disclosure requirements for independent expenditure-only committees. Those who say the people in Zuccotti Park need to work them out are ignoring the history of social movements. But unfortunately, the problems of political and economic inequality this movement seeks to solve will require extremely complex solutions, unlike the perceived problem the Tea Party seeks to solve, which only requires budget cutting.
Eventually, as the Wisconsin protesters coalesced around “Kill the Bill” and the Egyptian protesters demanded the resignation of Mubarak, successful protests will need a clear short-term demand that can be met by their targets. This gives them the first decisive victory they need to grow.
If OWS develops an immediate goal, their next challenge will be selling it to the public. The movement started with a much steeper uphill climb in getting media recognition than the Tea Party. It took hundreds arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge to be taken seriously by the press. The Tea Party had national spokespeople, such as Glenn Beck, who could articulate and broadcast their goals to millions from the mountaintop of the most widely viewed news network in America. This gave them message control, in addition to the natural message control that comes with wanting something so simplistic.
Think of any major social movement in American history. The first thing that comes to mind is often its spokespeople. Why? Not because Martin Luther King Jr. himself singlehandedly delivered civil rights to America. But because he was the spokesperson that articulated the movement’s vision to the average American. He provided a coherent “dream”, an idea of a more just world that people could picture in their minds, an imagined world that seemed better than the existing reality.
A spokesperson can make a radical idea make sense to everyday people. Without spokespeople, reporters delight in interviewing the most ignorant person they can find in a crowd and portraying an entire movement as insane. When reporters know the leader they need a quote from for every new political development, they interview them. Malcolm X was a communications genius, explaining the tenets of Black Nationalism with remarkable clarity and denying the media the ability to portray his followers as disorganized and confused.
This kind of message discipline requires spokespeople, and will be hard to enforce on a movement that is so democratic it resists using microphones. This highlights the real difference between OWS and the Tea Party: OWS is actually grassroots, while the Tea Party is artificial. Most Tea Party members are not regular struggling Americans who suddenly turned against Obama’s economic policies; the vast majority of Tea Party members are longtime registered Republicans who were excited about hating Obama. Their movement briefly captured the imagination of the country, but lost popularity as Americans recognized it as a cheap reproduction of old ideas. However, many OWS protesters are disillusioned people who are participating in political action for the first time in their lives, who didn’t even vote in the last election. They emotionally connect to new recruits in a way the Tea Party simply can’t, using the language of those who feel voiceless and helpless in the new American Gilded Age.
They are fiercely against hierarchy and wary of leaders of the Democratic Party who might proclaim themselves spokespeople. But movements tend to gravitate to charismatic leaders, and sooner or later, one will likely emerge. Elizabeth Warren seems like an ideal pick. If she risked her Senate bid to step into the front of this movement, she might become much more powerful than a regular US Senator. Whether someone like her can organize OWS to have focused message control will determine much of the movement’s success.
In retrospect we imagine nebulous movements, but they are built on institutions. No one joined the Civil Rights Movement. They didn’t come to a Civil Rights Movement meeting or take a Civil Rights Movement flier. They came to a SNCC meeting or an SCLC meeting or a CORE meeting. Those organizations created long-term strategies around specific issues, built networks of members on personal relationships, and executed actions around which they could mobilize people and pressure decision-makers to act.
Movements are sparked before institutions. Oddly enough, the Tea Party was ignited by an on-air rant from a stock trader turned financial reporter. OWS was launched by Canadian activist magazine Adbusters.
But sooner or later, without institutions to actively organize members, the rallies start to get smaller and smaller, while elected officials dismiss yet another has-been movement which lost its glamour. Some activists are professional rally-starters who know only one tactic: mobilizing, which they confuse with organizing. The difference between mobilizing and organizing is the ability to drive something long-term through relationship building and continuous leadership development. It takes little more than putting up posters or making a Facebook event to start a huge rally the day the government announces an unpopular decision. The question is: can you bring out a few thousand people again when lobbyists try to silently kill your bill in committee? Do you even know the names of the people you mobilized?
If I Google “Tea Party,” on the first page of results I find the Tea Party Patriots, the Tea Party Express, Tea Party.org and the Patriot Action Network. I can sign up to volunteer, donate and find events in my area on the first page of each of their websites.
This may happen with Occupy Wall Street, but it hasn’t yet. To win long-term goals like abolishing corporate personhood, requiring a constitutional amendment, OWS needs a sustainable movement. It will need to create organizations, which may not be able to function on general assembly consensus-only decision-making. A movement should never have one central organization. But OWS could, like the Tea Party, end up with several core organizations.
The Tea Party is an unusual movement with its ranks of millions ready to hit the pavement, but the checkbook of a movement whose goals coincide perfectly with corporate America. I don’t think this advantage is unbeatable. A “99% PAC” could raise Obama-esque money online from small donors and potentially go head to head against big oil, banks, and insurance companies. With the movement behind them, a fiery populist candidate could run for senate raising money online from individuals, not corporations.
This movement may build institutions as it matures. But it also may reject institutions as undemocratic and stifling. Many people, probably a few of my friends, would read this essay and complain that I’m attempting to introduce hierarchy, bureaucratize the movement or let it be co-opted by unions or the Democratic Party to win elections. But if this movement is still standing strong two years from now, it will have built long-lasting institutions to carry on the fight.
This country needs a new powerful and enduring grassroots movement with fresh ideas and passionate energy. It has not been political parties, but movements like these that have changed history. But for every successful movement, there have been ten revolutions that suffered quiet deaths of irrelevance, movements which have flashed and disappeared, slipping into the footnotes of history. If America has any chance of reversing our rampant political and economic inequality, it will need a movement like this to be strategic, to move us, to last, and to make us feel like we own our country again.