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New York Daily News

 

What Occupy Wall Street Can Learn From The Tea Party

October 09, 2011

By Josh Barro

In April 2009, the very first Tea Party protests began and were met with enthusiasm from some and skepticism from others.

Liberals sneered that the protests were a mix of extremist kooks and “Astroturf” -- i.e., fake grassroots actions. Thirty months later, those detractors may not like the Tea Party, but they cannot deny its political force.

As Occupy Wall Street emerges in lower Manhattan and, in recent days, around the nation, its supporters hope to channel its activist energy into policy change and push America’s political discussion to the left in the way the Tea Party pushed it to the right.

But in its current form, OWS is unsuitable to become a meaningful political force.

If its participants hope to make social change, they’ll have to learn some lessons from the Tea Party-- that is, they will have to articulate clear policy goals and then engage the political process to demand they be made a reality. The question is whether

OWS has just failed to do this yet, or whether it is structurally or even psychologically incapable of doing so.

To begin, the OWS protesters are not at all clear about what policy changes they want. Of course, protesters shouldn’t be expected to hold a sign in one hand and a white paper in the other. But if you believe that your political leadership has failed, you need to express your frustration and then ask it to do something different. OWS protesters are upset about a number of things (inequality, consumerism, “corporate greed”) but they are not saying what should be done about them.

Some protesters do mention specific policy ideas--a financial transaction tax is a common one. But too often, if you ask OWS protesters exactly what they want from the government, you won’t get clear answers.

Some will reject the idea of policy entirely. When I debated one of the movement’s organizers, Drew Hornbein, on CBC News, he said that OWS would drive change by “building a model society within the heart of darkness” -- i.e., that by camping out in Zuccotti Park and sharing food with each other, the protesters would actually show Americans a better way to live. Another protester told The New Republic that policy proposals are premature, because first the protesters must use “a radical, open, transformative, prefigurative democratic space to explore the possible.”

Other ideas from the protesters are less ethereal. Protesters demand an end to inequality, poverty and joblessness. But while these are ideas that relate to policy, they are not concrete policy proposals, and so government officials cannot be held accountable for them.

The Tea Party could not be more different on this score. From its beginning, it has been all about policy. Spending is too high. Taxes should be cut. The government should impose fewer regulations. Obamacare should be defeated -- and then, later, repealed.

This isn’t a detailed blueprint for governance. It’s clear that a lot of Tea Partyers don’t know exactly what the government spends money on or have a specific view on what it should cut. They even have internal disagreements -- should Pentagon spending be cut or safeguarded?

But while the Tea Party agenda lacks specificity, it has been clear enough to pressure Republicans in Washington to the right on several key issues. Over the last two years, many policy outcomes in Washington -- like the large package of spending cuts attached to the debt ceiling increase -- have had the Tea Party’s fingerprints on them.

A focus on utopian ends instead of concrete policies prevents OWS from following a second Tea Party lesson: take your fight to the ballot box. Tea Partyers don’t just wave signs and hold rallies. They lobby their representatives in Washington, recruit candidates for office and use primary challenges to pull the Republican Party to the right. In a few cases, they’ve defeated establishment candidates and replaced them with more hard-core conservatives, as in Rand Paul’s victory for Kentucky’s junior Senate seat; much more often, they’ve scared incumbents into voting the Tea Party line.

Even if OWS develops enough mass to influence the legislative process, it cannot do this because it has no legislative priorities. The question of whether poverty should be ended will never come explicitly before Congress. If you don’t know what laws you want enacted, how can you punish lawmakers who vote against them?

Then again, keep in mind that OWS is a young movement. With time, they may figure out what they want Democratic elected officials to do and then pressure them to toe the line. But OWS’s disorganization cannot be entirely blamed on its youth as a movement -- it is likely that the coalition’s components are too ideologically disparate to agree on one policy agenda.

Many of the participants in OWS are basically elements of the mainstream left--labor unions, MoveOn.org and rank-and-file liberals who are part of the Democratic Party coalition and want more progressive economic policies. But there is a radical core to OWS, consisting of anarchists and far leftists, who will not sit comfortably in a coalition aligned with the Democratic Party.

The movement is divided between those who want to reform the system and those who want to smash it to bits.

Last week, New York magazine went down to Zuccotti Park and surveyed 100 of the protesters. Asked to place themselves on a scale marked by major political thinkers, 75 said they were in line with Ralph Nader or to his left; 37 called capitalism “inherently immoral”; 34 agreed with the statement “the U.S. Government is no better than, say, Al Qaeda.”

You could imagine an OWS platform of higher taxes on the wealthy, reforms to consumer debt and tighter regulations on Wall Street. But would the protesters in Zuccotti Park, many of whom think the government is no better than terrorists, be likely to go for such weak sauce? Alternatively, there could be a radically anti-capitalist agenda for the movement, but such an agenda would stand no chance of garnering the support needed for enactment. (It would also be a terrible idea, substantively.)

Many of the protesters could also be procedurally unwilling to get behind a concrete policy agenda. They tend to be awfully proud of OWS’s “General Assembly,” the “horizontally-directed” body wherein protesters try to decide by consensus what they will do. But a national political movement that hopes to influence Washington will eventually require some vertical direction. This has been hard enough for the Tea Party, where a variety of competing organizations jostle for control and legitimacy. Throw a bunch of anarchists, who are skeptical of the very idea of organization, into the mix, and you have a much bigger challenge.

This is the greatest reason to be suspicious of OWS’s efficacy and importance. While many Tea Partiers have extreme views, like wanting to repeal Social Security, they generally accept the principles that America should be a representative democracy with a capitalist economic system. That has enabled them to play nicely, more or less, with the more mainstream elements of the Republican Party. It is not clear that OWS participants have sufficiently mainstream worldviews to replicate that model from the left.

They won’t be able to avoid answering the question forever. On the CBC segment, Hornbein warned me that the OWS protests would grow and its participants would have to be “appeased.” My response to him was that you can’t appease somebody if you don’t know what he wants. If OWS protesters want appeasement, they will have to start telling us what they want -- and we will see if the movement is up to the challenge of answering that question.

Original Source: http://www.nydailynews.com/opinions/2011/10/09/2011-10-09_what_occupy_wall_street_can_learn_from_the_tea_party_the_path_from_raucous_prote.html

 

 
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