There is an old saying, “Be careful what you wish for, you may get it”. That phrase came to mind as I read an article on the Occupy Wall Street protests now under way in New York and other cities. I couldn’t help but think about how some of the original Tea Party protestors were angry about a government that didn’t seem to listen to the people. A system that no longer even put up a pretense of being responsive to anyone other than big money special interests. Even if they weren’t sure exactly how it had happened, people knew that over the years, something had gone wrong and they wanted it fixed. We may be seeing the beginnings of a similar movement with the Occupy Wall Street protests.
It is still too early to tell, but the similarities are striking. Both groups started as a way to give a voice to those that felt they weren’t being heard by their elected representatives. They both attract a wide array of personalities, some that are unable to articulate exactly what they are angry about and thus are easy to dismiss as being uninformed or on the fringe of society, (or reality, for that matter) and some that are very well informed on the issues that concern them. Naturally, the TV cameras seek out the first group while practically ignoring the latter. Both groups attract some people with a laundry list of grievances, some real, some imagined. Others seem concerned about a single issue to the exclusion of all others. The Tea Party was quickly characterized by the media as being a collection of people from the far right of the political spectrum. The Occupy Wall Street crowd is being painted as residents of the far left. As is usually the case, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Many of the participants in both protests don’t view themselves in terms of left and right. When you talk to them you quickly learn that many are all over the board depending on what the issue is.
The one thing that the early Tea Party protestors and the current Occupy Wall Street protestors have in common is the realization that the federal government is not going to address the issue of a corrupt political system unless they are somehow coerced or shamed into it. Since most Washington politicians seem to lack any sense of shame, the options for affecting real change are limited. Like the Wall Street protestors, the early Tea Party protestors recognized that the vast majority of the failures of government are the result of a system so thoroughly corrupted by money that only a drastic overhaul will have any lasting effect. Many people, myself included, believed that the election of Barack Obama was a harbinger of the drastic change that is needed. Those foolish notions were quickly dispelled as we watched him fill key economic posts with Wall Street insiders like Tim Geithner and Larry Summers. Nothing more quickly signaled the fact that big money interests would continue to have a disproportionate influence on economic policy than those two appointments. No amount of election year speeches will make people forget that.
What remains to be seen is whether the Occupy Wall Street movement will see the same thing happen to their movement as the early Tea Party organizers saw happen to theirs. Lacking an organized structure and recognized leaders, the early Tea Party movement was co-opted by the very same big money special interests groups that were funding the politicians perpetuating the system they were protesting against. What started as a protest movement against the status quo quickly became a media vehicle to promote the self interests of the status quo. The majority of Tea Party funding continues to come from multi-national corporations funneled through front groups like Americans for Prosperity.
This brings me back to my earlier statement about being careful what you ask for. The people who put so much effort into stoking the anger of the Tea Party may live to regret yanking the chain of what could still turn out to be a populist uprising. While the Tea Party brand name may have been hijacked by corporate interests, the issues that unified the original protestors have clearly not been addressed. Efforts to divert the conversation to media friendly yet ultimately meaningless topics like birth certificates did not accomplish anything, the problem is still there and people are still angry. Only now, they are realizing that they are not alone in their anger. Tea Party protestors and Occupy Wall Street protestors alike are realizing that they may be unlikely allies. While they may not see eye to eye on many issues, some are coming to the conclusion that on the most important and fundamental issue, the corrupt legalized bribery of the current political system, that we must fight together. If the Tea Party protestors join with the Occupy Wall Street protestors, it will signal an unmistakable call for real change in the business as usual system that we now have. A unified populace is the last thing that the power brokers in Washington DC, on either side of the aisle, want to see. Continued division based on extraneous issues only assures that no meaningful change will ever take place. As Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”.