A number of commentators have compared the Occupy movement with the Tea Party. Although there are some similarities–mainly frustration with the status quo and anger at the political system–those comparisons ultimately fail.
The Tea Party–to judge by its spokespersons, placards and photos of meetings–is a profoundly reactionary movement. Its slogan is “I Want My Country Back,” and there hasn’t been much subtlety about the identity of those from whom they want it “back.” Viewed through a Tea Party lens, some people are more American than others.
The Occupy movement’s slogan is equally telling. “We are the 99 percent” is both an affirmation of how Occupiers see themselves and an expression of solidarity with the broad majority of Americans of all kinds.
Those who see the Occupy movement as a repeat of the Sixties miss an essential difference. As E.J. Dionne pointed out in a recent column,”The protests of that era were rooted in affluence. Too often in those years, the left cut itself off from the concerns of the white working class and disdained its values. That’s the history the right wants to revive. In fact, the Occupy demonstrations are precisely about the concerns of Americans who have been sidelined economically. This in turn is why polls show broad support for Occupy’s objectives of greater economic equality and more financial accountability.”
The response of the peaceful students who were pepper-sprayed at UC Davis was instructive. As numerous You Tube videos plainly showed, the students responded to unwarranted brutality by linking arms and remaining seated, despite the obvious pain they were experiencing. These were not Weathermen; they were earnest young people protesting a system that has been corrupted by the haves–a system that now protects status and wealth at the expense of the poor and (dwindling) middle-class.
Whenever there is a “movement,” there are unhinged hangers-on, and neither the Tea Party nor Occupy should be judged by their fringes. That said, their common frustration with the status quo should not blind us to the very significant differences between them.
Nostalgia for a highly idealized past and a palpable resentment of “others” animates the Tea Party; sympathy and a demand for social justice motivates the Occupiers.