Why Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party rallies can't be compared

Oct 18, 2011

How alike are the Occupy Wall Street protests and Tea Party rallies? This question has recently lead to discussion about the connection between the two groups of protestors and what they're trying to accomplish.

Alan Wolfe discussed why he thinks the two groups are fundamentally different. Don't agree with Wolfe's point of view?

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Hello all:  This is Alan Wolfe at Boston College.  I am the author of a new book POLITICAL EVIL.  My subject today, though, is the question of whether and how OWS and the Tea Party can be compared.  I'm ready when you are.

Because the Tea Party has specific goals, mostly a return to the smaller central government envisioned by the Founders. The OWS movement has repeatedly eschewed specific goals, and occupation alone doesn't suffice as defining a movement.

Actually not having specific goals is part of OWS's strength.  They are calling attention to deep injustice.  They are not policy wonks.

Why the comparison? Why put down the rights of both groups by putting them in the glare of poor opinions of people in academia?

I think it makes sense to compare them because they are fundamentally different.  Te Tea Party speaks to the self interest of people who feel their taxes are too high.  OWS speaks more to the general interest of making society fairer to all.

Should the Obama administration repudiate the anti-semitic elements of the Occupy Wall Street movement? Isn't he endangering himself by aligning with these protests?

I see no signs of strong anti-Semitism in OWS.  I do see serious signs of hostility toward poor people, many of whom are people of color, in the Tea Party movement.

Seems to me there are several major differences, e.g. Tea Party motivated by desire to "take the country back" from a black democrat president; and OWS isn't funded by Koch brothers. Your view?

You are onto something here.  For all the talk about comparisons to the Tea Party of all, this one has heavy sponsorship from major players.  OWS -- much less so.

Let's get clear. What happened with the bailouts was not capitalism, but socialism--direct government intervention to prop up failing private institutions. If you prefer not to see it as socialism, fine, then call it crony capitalism. But it was NOT pure capitalism. Capitalism, by definition, would have let the failing banks FAIL. Then others would have picked up their pieces in a stronger, more competitive environment, in which stupid decisions are NOT rewarded, and undue risk is not given a guarantee. Capitalism does not work by the rules "if we win, we win, if we lose, you lose." There is nothing about pure capitalism that was involved in the 2008 crash, i.e. if we're going to be honest in our analysis. Thank you.

I don't know what pure capitalism is.  All forms of capitalism rely on direct involvement by government in banking, infrastructure, etc.

Increasingly, I have seen the term "false equivalency" bandied about, especially by "progressives/the left," in an effort to reject, as just one example, comparisons between the Tea Party and OWS (example: "Tea Party was 'astroturf' funded by the Koch Brothers", whereas OWS is all "grassroots" and no support from labor unions/George Soros is involved--or so they say). Has "false equivalency" become the latest "talking point" or tactic disseminated by "progressives" to be used to refute such comparisons? It seems to me the tactic is being used more to neutralize or cut off such comparisons rather than as an actual valid argument.

There is a good deal of false equivalency going around, in part because this is supposed to make things objective.  To my mind, these groups really do have little in common and they should be treated as separate movements.

Are you familiar with this book, its content and principles, and if so, what is your opinion? Thank You! The Reverend Jeri R. Dexheimer

No.  Should I be?

Professor Wolfe, What do you feel OWS and it's supporters need to do in order to make it the basis of a revitalized progressive movement in the US? Is it even the proper foundation for such a revitalization?

I am no expert on giving advice to progressives.  But I do think this movement has changed the public discouse in the US.  It should, I believe, continue to do so.  Discourse is important.

Shouldn't the Occupy Wall street folk be protesting at the White House?

Absolutely not.  Wall Street is exactly where this protest ought to take place.

I believe that the TeaParty was fueled by the highly partisan rhetoric coming from Fox. As yet, I have not made as direct a connection between the Occupy Wall Street and the liberal media. To what extent do you believe that 'grass roots' movements today are driven by hidden manipulators? Cohn bros, Soros? Etc. And when/how can we believe that a movement is what it is?

If Soros did not exist, he would have to be invented.  The Koch brothers are another matter.  They spend their fortune to advance their own interests.  They have the right to do so.  But their vision of a greedy society is not one that is very appealing.

Do you think that the movement should try to create a platform for itself and start trying to push policy, or stick to protests and getting media attention which will inevitably fade?

It is not the task of OWS to offer policy proposals.  Let them continue to call attention to the increasing gap between rich and poor.  That is plenty to do -- and very important.

Dear Professor Wolfe: One of the things we hear over and over in the media is that OWS is like other movements around the world, a narrative that on the one hand dilutes its national context, but on the other, points to a significant difference between the Tea Party and OWS. We don't see thousands protesting in support of the Tea Party, but we see indignados in Spain and Italy, protests in London, and so forth. Could you speak to the question of how to read the dynamic of globalization in connection with OWS and whether it is being used to delegitimize it (as opposed to the nationalist frame of the Tea Party)? Thank you. Amherst, MA

You make a very good point.  The issues that OWS deal with are global in nature, while those of the Tea Party are very American.  So it follows that the former would spread internationally while the latter does not.

Can it really be achieved simply by passing increases in marginal tax rates, and higher capital gains taxes?

The question of how a tax burden is distributed says a great deal about the kind of society it is.  Increasing marginal tax rates may lead some to cheat, but it is a scandal, as they say, that Warren Buffett's secretary pays more in percentage terms than he does.  This has to be changed.

"I see no signs of strong anti-Semitism in OWS. I do see serious signs of hostility toward poor people, many of whom are people of color, in the Tea Party movement." You find what you seek; it's only how hard you choose to look. I've seen plenty of videos documenting screeds against the "Jewish cabals" and "bankers". And come on, isn't hostility against "the rich" the entire point of OWS?

Yes indeed you find what you are looking for.  Persuade yourself, if you wish, that OWS is hostile to Jews.  Meanwhile I would rather look at the explicit anti-Semitism so prominent on the right wing end of the political spectrum.

they are both angry about the same things. Their solutions may be different, but they're saying the same things.

I disagree.  One is saying they want more for themselves.  The other is saying that they want more for others.

The question is a bit like as saying that the Pittsburgh Pirates and Starbucks are fundamentally different. yes and no. Both are corporations, one's a sports team the other a coffee shop. The TP anger is at government and the OWS is at business. But both are angry at the status quo. There is no real TP platform other than small government, except for my benefits. The OWS has no platform so it is like the TP in that regard. The topic seems like a bit of a straw man, you can knock down any claim on either side.

There is plenty of anger to go around.  But to my mind the real story of the past few years is that those who already are winners want even more.  The Pea Party is not addressing that.  OWS is.

If the OWS crowd is protesting the bailouts, 1) aren't they a few years too late? And 2) they should be protesting to those who *did* the bailing out, which is the White House or congress.

They are not protesting the bailouts except as part of a larger story in which those with huge sums to spend can spend it on laws that favor themselves.

Utterly. Completely. Wrong. They should be on Pennsylvania Avenue, Capitol Hill, and K Street. A USA Today/Gallup poll over the weekend published today shows the public blames the government over Wall Street for our current economic problems, by 64% to 30%--over a two to one margin!

It is not Congress or Capitol Hill that is the problem.  If they were to shift their attention to Washington, and I don't think they should, they should focus on the Republican Party.

I'm censored at all major news outlets and facebook for my no nonsense views of the facist society we now live in. These organizations place rules to further their own ignorant agenda. Tolerance is what kept this great country together and power and money enable these ridiculous mediocre organizations afloat. Do they realize they: 1. ruin our constitution,  2. ruin the value of the dollar(for everyone on earth) and 3. they will face revolution? Thank you.

Fortunately we do not live in a fascist society.  That is why demonstrations can take place without the police shutting them down -- even before they start.

"For all the talk about comparisons to the Tea Party of all, this one has heavy sponsorship from major players. OWS -- much less so." Rejecting the role of George Soros and the labor unions in support of OWS (to the point of putting people on the protests for union pay), are we?

In the US that I know, unions are under attack.  

But letting the banks fail is something the OWS protestors are saying should have happened. They are saying no to bailouts, but they are also saying let's not pay the CEOs of failing institutions enormous salaries and bonuses.

I am not sure OWS speaks with any one voice but the hostility toward banks and their policies is palpable so, yes, some of the protestors would like to see them fail.

There is no getting around from your answers that you have little regard for the Tea Party. I hope you can admit that their call for smaller government is in line with the intent of the Founders, a federal government with "few and defined" powers (Madison in Federalist 45). My sense is that you, unlike the Founders, believe in an ever-expanding federal government and that colors your attitude towards the Tea Party.

The founders actually created a new, and centralized government.  If they wanted a smaller one, they would have kept the Articles of Confederation.

I have noticed a few OWS signs about auditing the Federal Reserve Bank are also found at some Tea Party rallies. Might this be an issue where they may be some common ground between at least forces within both movements, i.e. a distrust of our national banking system?

It might be a common area of interest if the Tea Party had made more of its focus the privileges already possessed by the already privileged.

Thanks everyone for your great questions and strong interest in the topic.  

In This Chat
Alan Wolfe
Alan Wolfe is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. He is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including, most recently, The Future of Liberalism (Knopf, 2009), Does American Democracy Still Work? (Yale University Press, 2006) Return to Greatness: How America Lost Its Sense of Purpose and What it Needs to Do to Recover It (Princeton University Press, 2005), The Transformation of American Religion: How We actually Live our Faith (Free Press, 2003), and An Intellectual in Public (University of Michigan Press, 2003). He is the author or editor of more than ten other books including Marginalized in the Middle (1997), One Nation, After All (1998), Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice (2001) and School Choice: The Moral Debate (editor, 2002). Both One Nation, After All and Moral Freedom were selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year.
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