Will the Occupy Wall Street movement have an impact similar to the TEA Party movement? The TEA Party, like Occupy, began as a grass roots organization of frustrated voters demanding change.
Its followers brought a wide variety of viewpoints and issues to rallies, but their primary issue was taxes. After all, TEA stands for Taxed Enough Already. They were fearful that the federal stimulus spending by the Bush and Obama administrations in response to the Great Recession had created long term deficits that would eventually result in higher taxes (despite the fact that much of the stimulus ‘spending’ was in the form of tax cuts). Most also expressed fear that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, (aka Health Care Reform), would increase deficits and be an unwelcome intrusion into Americans’ rights to manage their own health care needs and choices (I believe those fears to be unfounded, but that argument is for another day). What the TEA Party was most concerned about, though, was jobs and the economy, and a general feeling that President Obama and the Democratic Congress, led by Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, were not representing their interests (most TEA Partiers are white, middle-aged, and male).
TEA Party principles are:
- Fiscal Responsibility: taxes should be low, budgets should be balanced, national debt should be paid off.
- Constitutionally Limited Government: the role of the federal government should be limited to that which the founders outlined or intended in the Constitution.
- Free Markets: the government should not intervene in business.
These principles have the ring of sensibility, but if strictly adhered to would result in a fundamentally different America than exists today. “Original Intent” might not allow for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Environmental Protection Agency, etc. TEA Partiers believes the constitution leaves those areas to the states or individuals. Most health, safety, and financial regulations would be abolished, and the Federal Reserve dismantled. However, surveys of self-identified TEA Partiers show that large majorities would be against cuts in Medicare and Social Security, though wanting to cut both taxes and deficits. The only way to square those kinds of desires is through faith that cutting taxes will miraculously raise tax revenues, a belief that Reagan’s and G.W. Bush’s experiments proved false.
Nevertheless, most conservative Republicans and many Independents find these ideas attractive, with the caveat that change must be incremental or that anyone currently receiving Medicare, for example, would continue to receive it. Republican politicians identifying themselves as TEA Partiers emerged with the message that they would be the ‘true conservatives,’ and unlike the big Republican spenders during the Bush years and before, would hold the line, even if it meant shutting down the government. With the promise of even lower taxes and roll backs of regulations, and aided by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizen’s United allowing for unlimited political spending, wealthy corporate interests and individuals stepped up with a massive influx of cash to support TEA Party Republican candidates and unseat Democrats in statehouses and Congress in the 2010 elections.
Without the massive influx of corporate cash supporting think tanks, media buys, and political campaigns often disguised as issue advertising (and claimed as tax deductible charitable contributions), the TEA Party influence might have been marginal. Jane Mayer, a journalist writing for the New Yorker, has detailed the methods used in 2010 in articles about the billionaire Koch brothers and a recent article about multi-millionaire Art Pope’s almost single handed purchase of North Carolina for the Republicans.
So, while the TEA Party started as a grass roots organization that hoped to inspire millions of American voters with mass protests and rallies, it is currently supported by only 15-20% of voters. It remains to be seen whether the Republican candidate for president in 2012 will have TEA Party support, and if not, whether there will be a movement to put up their own candidate.
The Occupy movement, like the TEA Party, started as a grass roots movement in response to concern about the economy. Unlike the TEA Party, however, they do not blame government alone for our economic woes; instead they identify the greed of corporations and their influence on government. While the demographic is clearly younger than the TEA Party’s and reflects the frustration or idealism of unemployed college graduates and students, they have recently been joined by unions and other progressive, Democrat supporting organizations, such as Van Jones’ Rebuilding the American Dream. Some proposals taking shape are for more equitable wages and taxation, which line up well with President Obama’s and Democratic platforms.
Will this movement continue to grow, as the organizers hope, into a massive peaceful revolution such as occurred in Egypt, so large that politicians will be forced to take action on yet to be identified demands? Or, as racist elements within the TEA party did, will radicals in Occupy discredit it for most Americans? Will the enthusiasm and persistence of its supporters influence the Democratic Party as the TEA Party has influenced the Republicans? Will their efforts translate into positive change for America? I hope so.
This essay appeared in the Charleston Gazette-Mail on October 21, 2011