Occupy Looks Forward, Tea Party Backward

There are some obvious and significant similarities between the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Both have their roots in the current economic crisis that is now in its third year as well as, more profoundly, in a sense of powerlessness in the face of corporate and political power. They have both arisen out of times of economic uncertainty when people are genuinely afraid of the consequences of chronic unemployment, a deeply damaged housing market, and little hope of economic improvement in the immediately foreseeable future.

Despite these surface similarities, however, there are some very real differences between the two movements. The Tea Party is essentially a movement that is deeply conservative, not just in terms of its political ideology, but in its opposition to change. It is no coincidence that the faces at Tea Party events skew older and whiter than the American population, thus presenting a visual reinforcement for what is primarily a backwards-looking movement seeking to return to a largely imagined time of small government, economic security, and a less tolerant and diverse America. It is also not surprising that so much Tea Party vitriol is aimed at President Obama, who evokes hatred and fear among many Tea Partyers because he is such a powerful symbol of a changing America. Accordingly, the Tea Party is fundamentally a regressive movement with little ambition to move society forward.

The Occupy Wall Street movement, on the other hand, has the potential to be genuinely transformative in a very different way. The battery of economic concerns raised by the activists in Zucotti Park and elsewhere are not new, but they have not driven political debate, or even street activism, in a very long time in the United States. These economic concerns around issues of equality, fairness, and limiting corporate power can be addressed only through deep, meaningful changes in our society and economy. In this respect, the frequently maligned absence from Occupy Wall Street of a simple slogan or set of demands, such as the Tea Party's small-government and tax-cutting rhetoric, is a sign not of the laziness or lack of focus on the part of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, but by the ambitious and transformative nature of their goals. There is, of course, no guarantee of the success of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but surface similarities aside its goals and direction are very different from those of the Tea Party.