Occupy and the Tea Party

Lessons from the radical grass (and astroturf) roots in the USNiall Crowley in New York 


The selection of Paul Ryan as running mate for Mitt Romney turns a spotlight on the role and place in politics of the new social movements in the USA. Paul Ryan is the ‘darling’ of the Tea Party and has made his name on an uncompromising commitment to austerity and budget cutbacks. But, of course, the Tea Party is not the only social movement to emerge from the economic and financial crisis in the USA. Occupy also emerged with very different objectives and relationships with the corporate, political and media worlds.

Both movements have grown out of the perceived political vacuum caused by failure. First is the failure of the economy and the neo-liberal project of market predominance under the Republican Party. Then there is the failure of liberal reforms by the Democratic Party to mitigate the crisis. Circumscribing both of these is the failure of organised civil society to advance alternatives to policies put forward by the political parties.

The Tea Party is more accurately understood as the Tea Parties. There is the grassroots Tea Party that is predominantly White, middle class, well educated and over forty-five years old. There is the so-called ‘astroturf’ Tea Party. ‘Astroturf’ is name given to campaigns that are corporate fronts using corporate funds to pose as spontaneous popular campaigns. Then there is the Republican Tea Party with members of Congress and Senate taking up uncompromising positions espoused by the Tea Party and forming Tea Party caucuses. The goals of these different elements do not always correspond but they nevertheless constitute a formidable societal force.

Occupy is pure grassroots. It traces its origins to the movements of the Arab Spring, to ‘AdBusters’ and to European movements such as the Indignados in Spain.   Occupy brings together participants from diverse communities affected by economic crisis and seeks to unify them. There are inevitably tensions over how to address the different priorities of different groups.

The Tea Party is concerned with the federal deficit and the size and power of federal Government. Its core demand is a reduction in the size of Government and Government spending. It espouses austerity, low taxes and de-regulation of business. It is less likely to hold bankers, financiers and big business accountable for the crisis and more likely to blame politicians and those buying sub-prime mortgages without being able to afford them. It mobilises people as essentially passive voters.

Occupy refused to set out specific policy demands. It is building a perspective over time out of the disparate sources from which it draws its participants. It has posed income inequality and corporate greed as its core concerns. It has also identified concern about corporate influence on government. It has promoted transparent, open and participative forms of democracy in its own organisation.

Occupy has rejected any involvement in party politics. It is committed to working outside political institutions it identifies as corrupt. It sees both the main political parties as being parties of the rich and committed to neo-liberal economics. It is worried about cooption through any political alliance. This it fears would leave the ground free for the Right to remain the only voice of militant opposition to the failed policies of the Democratic Party.

The Tea Party was initially inspired by disaffection with the Republican Party and frustration at the growth of Government under the Bush administration. The emergence of the Tea Party is seen as a turning point in the renewal of the Republican Party.

The so-called ‘astroturf’ element of the Tea Party embodies the close relationship it has with big business, especially the Koch brothers who have significant interests in refining and distributing oil. Their family foundation has supported initiatives to weaken labour unions, oppose healthcare reform and stimulus packages, and block industry accountability for pollution. The family behind Coors beer, the Waltons of Walmart, Philip Morris and ExxonMobil are also significant supporters.

Their support is channelled through a number of foundations like Freedom Works and Americans for Prosperity. These foundations have provided an infrastructure for the Tea Party which has enabled national co-ordination, training, funding and campaign support. It appears to be an opportunistic alliance. Support is received on the assumption that it does not lead but merely facilitates and that interests have already coincided.

Occupy have been clear in identifying the central role of the banks, financiers and big business in the economic and financial crisis. They have also developed links with the trade unions which came out in significant numbers to defend Occupy Wall Street. Occupy have supported a wide range of trade union struggles and some are concerned it may degenerate into a cheerleader

Occupy have also developed mutually supportive links with students and student organisations. Overall there appears to be a concern to build relationships and linkages across a broad range of associations through Occupy.

Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Cable Network has provided a powerful media driver for the Tea Party. Many of the best-known Fox presenters are open advocates for the Tea Party.

The media ignored Occupy when the occupation of Zuccotti Park began. It took police brutality from the NYPD to bring Occupy to their attention. Initially, the media derided the lack of identified leaders and the lack of policy demands. They were unable to see it as a work in progress. However, growing support for Occupy being demonstrated on the streets let to hugely-increased media coverage. The media became a vital element in Occupy’s successful messaging about income inequality and corporate greed.

Tea party voters are said to have built the new Republican majority in Congress. The Tea Party has shaped the current national political debate. They have induced inflexibility in the Republican Party in relation to tax cuts and budget cuts. They are responsible for a further move to the right by the Democratic Party. They have contributed to a political culture supportive of budget-cutting and hostile to environmental regulation.

The imagery of the 99% and the 1% and the concept of ‘Occupy’ have entered public consciousness as a result of Occupy. Occupy shifted public discourse to the left, for a period, to a concern about inequality. Occupy has influenced civil society and reinvigorated a politics of protest.

The future, however, does not appear to be particularly promising for the Tea Party or Occupy. Organisational weakness, lack of presence in big cities and decentralisation are seen as insuperable problems for the Tea Party.  Occupy have been evicted from many of the public spaces they were present in. There is pressure on them to help the re-election of Obama, particularly from the trade unions. However Occupy remains committed to direct action and rebuilding the infrastructure of dissent. It is suggested they are just at the beginning of figuring out what their movement will look like.

There are lessons for the Left in Ireland. There is the salutary lesson about the more immediate capacity of the Right to channel social anger – aided by the resources uniquely available to it. There are then the challenging lessons about the need to address the collapse of the infrastructure of dissent, to embolden civil society and to create the public spaces and alliances to develop and offer better alternatives.