Occupy Wall Street movement intrigues, confounds the tea party

Even as analysts note similarities between the two populist uprisings, many tea party activists say a merger could never happen. Many are put off by Occupy Wall Street's civil disobedience and economic prescriptions.

By , Staff writer

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    A US national flag is seen in Zuccotti Park where Occupy Wall Street campaign demonstrators have been stationed near Wall Street in New York on Tuesday.
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When Joanne Wilder's compatriots from Central New York Patriots wanted to decamp for New York City to help "educate" Occupy Wall Street protesters, the local tea party organizer balked.

"We stay away from this," she told her friends.

That sentiment illustrates the arm's length approach that many tea partyers are taking toward a new social movement that is starting to threaten the tea party's preeminence on the political stage.

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Some commentators are drawing parallels between the two populist uprisings – opposition to government bailouts of corporations is one prominent example – and some have even suggested a big-tent merger that could yield policy to alleviate the economic dissatisfaction, political powerlessness, and middle-class angst that drives both movements.

"We've ... got a conservative populist movement and a progressive populist movement happening at the same time," Rory McVeigh, director of the Center for the Study of Social Movements at the University of Notre Dame, tells San Jose Mercury News columnist Chris O'Brien. "There's a sense on both sides that it's us against that unnamed force out there running the world."

But some local tea party activists say in interviews that the small-government tea party and the anticapitalist Occupy movements have irreconcilable differences. While the root causes of the protests may be similar, many in the tea party view as unacceptable both the tactics of the Occupy protests – challenging law enforcement, among them – and most of its prescriptions.

"I'll never be against people being able to organize and protest, but I can't say I agree with most of their reasoning," says Brandon Welborn, a tea party member in Georgia. "It's almost like they want their debts completely erased. I understand the government made bad decisions, both Bush and Obama, but at some point you have to take responsibility for your actions and quit waiting for handouts."

Though both movements express disdain for a perceived elite plutocracy in Washington and New York, most tea partyers are not inclined to forge a bond over that. Rather, they see an opportunity for political haymaking, to try to tie Democrats to radical visions espoused by some Occupy protesters (such as the 62 Zucotti Park protesters, out of the 200 surveyed by Democratic pollster Douglas Schoen, who said they support using violence to achieve their ends).

That may be one reason most Democratic leaders have been careful about embracing the Occupy movement too tightly. President Obama's statements about it, for instance, have been measured, acknowledging people's frustrations but not endorsing their proposals. “I think people are frustrated, and the protestors are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works," President Obama said Oct. 6.

A full embrace of the ragged, edgy movement could have negative repercussions for Democrats, warns Mr. Schoen in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Tuesday. Citing his own data, Schoen writes that the Occupy protesters are "an unrepresentative segment of the electorate that believes in radical redistribution of wealth, civil disobedience and, in some instances, violence," all bound together by a "deep commitment to left-wing policies."

Some tea party activists have waded into the Occupy protests to try to capture outrageous antics on film and audio. They've found some interesting material – anti-American slogans, pictures of litter-covered camping areas, questionable sanitary habits – but the images haven't gotten much play in the mainstream media. Many tea partyers, moreover, complained loudly when liberals infiltrated their public demonstrations to try to smear them, and are reluctant to appear hypocritical by engaging in the same tactics.

Other tea party groups have opted to engage Occupy protesters. According to Politico, Chris Littleton, an Ohio tea party organizer, said some tea party folks were involved in planning the Occupy Cincinnati protests. "I'm quite sensitive to the types of frustrations that they're expressing, though I think that the prescriptions" are different, he told Politico.

Some Occupy protesters' calls for a new French Revolution and the occasional anti-Israel slogan are big turnoffs for tea party activists who might otherwise have considered linking up with the youthful protest movement.

"I think they kind of got it right at the beginning where they saw there was a problem, but I was really hoping the kids would figure out what the real problem was and they didn't," says Ms. Wilder. "Instead, they've gone overboard and completely in the opposite direction."

Some tea party adherents disagree, citing glimpses at the Occupy protests of the Gadsden flag – the "Don't tread on me" flag that is ubiquitous at tea party protests – and of signs calling for abolishing the Federal Reserve, a popular idea among some tea party activists.

"It seems to me what's going on there is excellent," says Jeff Mowry of Westcliffe, Colo., who has been involved with tea party groups. "I really admire what they're doing. Maybe these folks haven't been on the cutting edge of reading about what's going on economically, but I don't know that it matters that much. The important part is they're showing up.

"This is all an educational process for everybody. After all, you're trying to unbend a very crooked system, and that's kind of tough."

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