Thoughts On The Occupation

Early in the Tea Party movement days, I wrote the following:

I've been following the conservative/libertarian "Tea Party" protests pretty closely, and I suspect that the nation-wide "Tax Day Tea Party" events will be pretty well-attended, so I wanted to pass along what info I have about the events in the area, for those who wish to participate. The protests have their failings, and there will surely be much to criticize about them, from incoherent messaging to overly rabid participants. That's OK. Most of the Tea Party organizers, and participants, are less experienced in this sort of thing than groups whose protests have sometimes suffered the exact same flaws.

Indeed, it might be a nice outcome if those on the right come away with more empathy for the left-wing protesters they have mocked in the past, and if those on the left come away with more understanding of how their protests can look to those with opposing views.

Needless to say, my hopes were for naught, as evidenced by reactions to the Occupy movement. (For coverage of Occupy Boston and beyond, you really do need to be following the Boston Phoenix on this web site. The Boston Metro also deserves kudos, but I think the Phoenix has demonstrated how a news organization can bring its readers directly into the middle of an ongoing, developing event.)

Conservatives have been particularly eager to dismiss the Occupy movement, and any suggestions that it parallels the early Tea Party movement. But their arguments not only misread the Occupiers -- an easy, if lazy, mistake with any nascent movement, especially this one -- more importantly, they are mythologizing about the Tea Party.

For example, conservatives have derided the Occupiers for having no coherent platform, or "demands." Occupiers interviewed by the press, they say, either express vague all-encompassing indictments of the political-economic system, or site specific, unconnected grievances ranging from interest rates to animal abuse. True, and no different at all from the early Tea Partiers. No, the early Tea Partiers were not gathered around any coherent call for smaller government, as some are now claiming -- I was there, I spoke to lots of them, participants and leaders alike. Some were simply railing against some big totality of the evil liberal system; others cited specific grievances including: bank bailouts, gun control, energy policy, war, inequities in the family court system, gay marriage, eminent domain, Fannie and Freddie, and any number of more arcane issues.

You'll recall that the trigger for popularizing the Tea Party movement was Rick Santelli raving on CNBC against the mortgage bailout plan. That issue was a minor one, at best, at early Tea Party events, and quickly forgotten -- especially after the heating up of the war over health-care reform, which was barely on the Tea Party radar that April.

Prior to the first big national Tea Party events of April 15, 2009, Worcester-area Tea Party organizer Sandi Martinez circulated a list of suggested sign slogans; the first two on the list concerned Barack Obama's birth certificate. And at the April 15, 2011 Tea Party event on Boston Common, I was handed a flyer declaring that Obama was ineligible for the Presidency due to his British geneology. So, there you go.

It seems to me that the Tea Party has brought people together under the general proposition that the will and well-being of the sovereign citizenry is being thwarted by the power of a small cadre of big-government socialists. The Occupiers, it seems to me, are brought together under the general proposition that the will and well-being of the sovereign citizenry is being thwarted by the power of a small cadre of corporatist oligarchs. I personally think the evidence is stronger for the latter than the former, but as an organizing umbrella belief for a movement, neither strikes me as significantly more or less clear, cohesive, or understandable than the other.

Despite claims of 'Astroturfing' from both sides against the other, both movements began with, and tapped into, genuine populist frustrations; subsequent backers (and usurpers) of movements that demonstrate popular appeal are unsurprising if not inevitable.

Both movements had plenty of difficulty with direction, communication, and organization. In the case of the Tea Party, it was too many would-be leaders, as everyone from local political activists like Martinez to national figures like Sarah Palin -- and from ad hoc Tea Party organizations to established conservative groups like Richard Armey's -- tried to various extents to direct or speak for the movement. With the Occupiers, it's been the absence of leaders, as the participants struggle to form and maintain 'leaderless' structures that live up to their populist ideals.

That's nothing new; this is a vast over-generalization, but it seems to me leftist movements have long tended to be really focussed on process; I fully expect to see theses exploring which 19th-century European school the Occupiers' General Assembly model traces to. Populist movements of the right, I would suggest, have tended to follow more of a strong-leadership model -- as we perhaps see in the libertarian devotion to Ron Paul.

In fact, it may be possible, if rather presumptuous, simplistic, and even offensive, to condense all of the world's history of populism into two scenes from Monty Python movies:

Representing the left is Dennis, who tediously explains to King Arthur the operational details of his anarcho-syndicalist commune.

Representing the right are the followers who gather beneath Brian's window and parrot back, in unison, his advice that they all be individuals and think for themselves.

But perhaps I digress. The question now is whether the Occupy movement can sustain its momentum and grow. To do that, I would guess, it will probably a reasonably concrete focal point. That doesn't mean a specific demand or overarching goal; this is not an action with a single-point goal in mind (eg, save this park!). It is a movement; an attempt to alter the general direction of our society -- first, by drawing attention to what they see as the current, failing direction.

Again, that's no different than the Tea Party movement, the overall goal of which was not going to be achieved by defeating the health care reform bill, or stopping the auto company bailout, or getting Republicans into the majority in the House of Representatives. But those and other concrete, if temporary and/or partial, objectives, helped sustain and grow the movement. One could say the same (without suggesting any equivalence) about the Civil Rights movement: integrating lunch counters, protesting racially unfair housing laws and practices, and advocating state-by-state for public-accommodation laws were not demands which, if redressed, would end the movement. But focussing on such individual challenges was crucial to the movement. Same for women's lib, and early 20th century progressivism.

I would imagine that many such battles should present themselves to the Occupy movement; we'll see whether opportunity and action connect in a way that elevates it to a serious, ongoing concern. And I would suggest that the Tea Party movement, which I think did make that leap two years ago, may be facing a similar question going forward today.

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