19 July 2012

The Tea Party outperforms the Occupy Movement

The financial and economic collapse of 2008 in the United States precipitated two "revolutionary" movements: one on the right, the Tea Party, and one on the left, the Occupy Movement. If we now ask what each has accomplished, the answers are straightforward: the Tea Party a great deal, the Occupy Movement not much.

Both did their demonstration thing, but the Tea Party didn't stop there. After the street theatre, they doffed their tricorn hats, laid down their muskets, and carried their anger into the political sphere via the Republican Party. They changed that party and they changed the country. They elected Congressmen, Senators, state governors and other officials amenable to their principles and sent the country reeling to the right. Their success is quite extraordinary. The Occupy Movement, by contrast, seems to have hardly changed the country at all.

All the Republican candidates for president found it necessary to sound more like Tea Party members than members of a formerly moderate centre-right Republican Party. Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, on the other hand, seem to have been barely touched by the Occupy Movement.

Why the difference? Aside from their contrasting philosophies, the two parties differ in something else—age. Tea Party members tend to be middle-aged to older, Occupy members young. Older people tend to use the system, youth tend to reject the system—that, after all, is what rebellious youth do. So perhaps we could not expect the Occupy Movement to storm the Democratic Party en masse, as the Tea Partiers did with the Republican Party.

Another, and much more significant, difference is big money. Big money now dominates politics in the United States. That doesn't interfere with the goals of the Tea Party or the Republican Party. Both are comfortable with big money influence: the Republicans have always been the party of the rich and the Tea Party was partly created and funded by big money. So the Tea Party/Republican Party/big money relationship makes for a happy ménage à trois.

But the power of big money is precisely what the Occupy Movement is opposed to, and the Democratic Party is hardly less dependent on big money than the Republican Party. So there is a serious conflict. If the Occupiers were to move into the Democratic Party as the Tea Partiers have into the Republican Party, their message would at least be diluted if not drowned entirely by the race for funding. Barack Obama seeks the financial favour of bankers as much as Mitt Romney does. Who would have his ear—the guys with the chequebooks or the guys with the abstract principles?

Yet if the Occupy Movement is to create change as the Tea Party has done, it cannot remain aloof forever from the political mainstream. The anti-war movement did and achieved success, but that was a campaign with an intensely focused goal, not at all like the rather nebulous goals of the Occupy Movement. Even the civil rights movement, initially outside mainstream politics, ultimately had to come in from the cold before the important changes were made.

This will apply to the Occupy Movement as well. Legislation will be necessary to change the economic and political systems in significant ways, and that means either joining and attempting to reform the Democratic Party, or amassing enough supporters outside the two main parties to sway elections. Or, I suppose, forming a new political party. In a system now a captive of big money, any option presents a huge challenge.

1 comment:

  1. Bill, I have had a lifelong fascination with revolution since I was introduced to the subject during my undergrad in the States in the 60s. For several years now there have been knowledgeable types predicting the 21st to be a "century of revolution." I'm becoming convinced that's more than probable.

    Crane Brinton's seminal work, "The Anatomy of Revolution" from 1934 is a very useful read. In it he dissects all the great revolutions - British, American, French and Menshevik/Bolshevik - and chronicles that amazing commonalities that lead up to, spark and fuel revolution. It is quite arguable that all of the precursors exist today in most Western societies in conditions that will only worsen due to growing inequality and external forces such as climate change.

    Brinton refers to the revolutionary tipping point as the evolution of an inept political class. Sound familiar?