Occupy Wall Street: Can it ever match tea party clout?
Economic conditions have seemed ripe for a popular uprising from the left, and now 'Occupy Wall Street' protests are marshaling those forces. But so far the tea party has greater focus and intensity.
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But so far, the Wall Street protests have targeted corporate influence without providing a clear vision of what they want. The tea party movement, by contrast, has focused from the onset on shrinking the size of government and low taxes. In that way, it parallels past populist movements – even if it is conservative in orientation.Skip to next paragraph
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H.W. Brands, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin, sees the current US situation as analogous to the late 1890s, when the People’s Party became a force in American politics.
Now, as then, Americans were anxious amid economic and social upheaval. Today, Americans are troubled by the implications of globalization. Back then the nation was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution and a strong populist movement emerged from rural voters.
“The world was changing out from under them,” Mr. Brands says. “The farm ... had given way to the factories. [Populism] was as much an emotional response as it was an economic response.”
And now, as then, the populists focused on simple answers to complex challenges. In the 1890s, the People’s Party’s answer was “free silver” – a proposed departure from the gold standard, which was seen as harming indebted farmers, to allow coinage of silver, too. Today, it is federal spending cuts.
But just as free silver was at best a partial answer to the challenges facing late-19th-century farmers, federal deficit reduction is not a fully formed plan for restoring economic growth, Brands says.
Measuring the extent of the conservative populist surge since 2009 is difficult. On one hand, Republicans used it to win historic gains in the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections. But Republicans in Congress are as unpopular as Democrats, polls find.
Other polls show Americans are more likely to say they disapprove of the tea party than approve. A Gallup poll in August found 25 percent of Americans call themselves tea party “supporters,” while 28 percent see themselves as opponents and 42 percent said neither.
But the tea party has clearly given the right more purpose and energy. Occupy Wall Street could be an answer to that, and supporters of the protests note parallels to the early days of the tea party movement – beginning with grudging media coverage.
“There’s been thousands of people across the country participating in this,” says Mr. Uygur. The news media have been “weirdly derisive and dismissive” of protests on the left, he says, even when “the same numbers of people show up” as to some tea party events.
The comparison has its limitations, others say.
The tea party has shown tangible electoral results and staying power, notes Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Hamden, Conn. “There’s no evidence that the Occupy Wall Street folks have any numbers on a national basis.”
IN PICTURES: Wall Street protests