The Occupy Wall Street protests were initially dismissed as the actions of anarchists and hippies; angry young people who purportedly despised capitalism and were thus anti-American. However, in recent days the demonstrations have spread around the world, from Wall Street to the Colosseum, Berlin to Melbourne, signifying global solidarity over common economic hardships. As the movement has gained support and, more importantly, traction, politicians, correspondents and captains of industry alike have been forced to re-examine all aspects of this social uprising, from its potential staying power to its effect on America’s political parties and the looming Presidential election.
As the protests have amplified, and coverage has noticeably increased, comparisons have been drawn between the left-wing demonstrators and the right-wing Tea Party. While this simple parallel makes for an interesting narrative, it fails to capture the true spirit of the Occupy movement and does not adequately acknowledge the substantial achievements of the Tea Party. Both groups indeed share marginal similarities. The respective movements were equally born out of a cocktail of fear, frustration and resentment, and their rise indicates mounting grassroots populism in the United States.
The Tea Party raced onto the political scene in 2009, founded in the wake of government bailouts, and immediately called for limited government and fiscal accountability. It appears concerned leftists delayed action in the fervent hope that the Obama administration would deliver the “Change” they so eagerly anticipated. But a lack of solutions has bred wider and more vocal discontent. Impatient and weary liberals have taken to the streets, under the banner of Occupy Wall Street, to chastise the greed and opulence of the “1%”. Occupy Wall Street is not, therefore, the direct response of the progressive left to the well-established populist conservative enterprise, but instead a spontaneous, twitter-led eruption of indignation against a broken economic system.
The most apparent differences are found within the makeup of each camp. The middle-aged, middle class and overwhelmingly white Tea Partiers are conspicuously divergent to the young and multicultural crowd currently occupying lower Manhattan. In fact, as the Occupy movement has gained momentum and acceptability, its support has diversified, traversing class, age and racial boundaries to offer a truer representation of the “99%”. And as the ranks have swollen, so too has national approval. The latest Time poll designates that 54% of the American people look favourably on Occupy Wall Street, while only 27% feel correspondingly about the Tea Party. Nevertheless, the very same poll illustrates that the majority of Americans believe the protests will have little lasting impact on the political landscape, serving to further differentiate the two distinctive groups.
The numbers, both encouraging and disheartening, reflect the fact that Occupy Wall Street has not yet entirely politicised, nor established centralised leadership. In contrast, the Tea Party had well-defined goals from its inception, utilising democratic means to achieve their targets and arguably reshaping Congress in the process. The young core of OWS lack the political know-how and, in some regards, the determination to affect change through traditional political avenues. However, as the movement matures and more politically experienced organisations, such as labour unions, join the fight, it is possible the month-old unrest will leave an indelible footprint on the American political scene.
One thing is certain. Those who foolishly dismiss Occupy Wall Street as the impulsive activities of pot-smoking anarchists, or imprudently reject Tea Partiers as little more than nutty rightists, should be prepared for the advancement and longevity of both causes. The United States is suffering through a period of economic instability and social turmoil. With no clear end in sight, the radicalism exhibited in recent weeks is unlikely to subside in the near future.