The Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street protests may appear to be on opposite sides of the street, but they are really singing the same song; maybe just in a different key.
At their core, the protests of the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement are both signs of bubbling frustration brought to a boil by a relentless assault on the opportunity and economic stability of the middle-class resulting in the disappearance of the “American Dream.” (The evidence of this attack on the middle-class was discussed in detail in my recent blog on “class warfare”)
In the previous blog I pointed out that the economic structure of America is changing; the group at the top is accumulating more and more wealth, while the middle-class is suffering from forced economic “down-sizing.” As a result of this attack on the middle-class, the young now feel that they have little chance of achieving the social and economic fluidity of the American Dream and have grown cynical. Their parents, meanwhile, have become embittered by having their dreams evaporate, this after a lifetime of hard work.
Members of the Tea Party are typical of the latter. They’re generally middle-aged or older individuals who — relying on the promise of upward mobility and financial security, provided by a democratic, free-market society — have worked hard all their lives. What they have reaped for their honest toil, though, is not the American Dream. Instead, they have seen their jobs evaporate, wages decline, careers up-rooted and the assurance of a secure retirement all but obliterated. They feel cheated and justifiably so.
On the other hand, the Occupy Wall Street protesters are generally younger and on the cusp of their careers. They are witness to what has happened to the dreams of their parents and are experiencing for themselves a closing window of opportunity for their future that causes only feelings of helplessness and despair.
The Tea Partiers and the Occupiers may come at their frustrations from a different perspective, but their exasperations and goals are the same. The prophetic words of Jefferson Airplane in their 1969 song “Volunteers of America” are just as appropriate here and now:
Look what’s happening out in the streets
Got a revolution Got to revolution
Hey I’m dancing down the streets
Got a revolution Got to revolution
Ain’t it amazing all the people I meet
Got a revolution Got to revolution
One generation got old
One generation got sold
This generation got no destination to hold
Pick up the cry
We are volunteers of America
Views from Two Sides of the Same Road
What really separates the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements is the different devil they identify as the evil villain threatening their future. All their lives, the members of the Tea Party were encouraged to believe that the objective of corporations was to be the dynamic “job-creators” that, when given the freedom to do so, would bring the American Dream to reality. Believing that corporations are the source of opportunity and security, the Tea Party members see the government as a wicked force preventing the corporations from fulfilling its promises. They believe that if only the government would “get out of the way,” then the corporations would be empowered and motivated to make everything better again. (It is no coincidence that much of the initial seed-money and support for the Tea Party has come from corporate millions, i.e. the Koch brothers, and mostly Republican politicians who are beholden to corporate contributions for their election.)
The Occupy Wall Street protesters see corporations and the executives who run them as malicious self-centered provocateurs united in a systematic attack on the middle-class, causing the loss of economic opportunity. Saddled with huge student loans undertaken with the implied promise that they would lead to opportunity, they have seen instead corporations move the manufacturing of products and millions of jobs overseas; report record levels of profits, accumulate piles of idle cash and pay extravagant bonuses to executives—all while laying off millions of American workers. The Occupiers see the corporations committing egregious acts of greed and reckless management decisions, only to be bailed-out by government largess, with no repercussions or accountability for those acts. At the same time, they have seen career opportunities for college graduates decline precipitously and pay for those who do find jobs decline by almost 20 percent since 2000.
Amidst all of this comes word that many large “American” corporations now employ more workers in foreign countries than they do in America. It is philosophy that allows the CEO of General Electric to spout, “GE may be an American corporation, but we are a global organization.” This attitude is apparently what gives GE license to be more concerned about its profits than a prospering America. Is it any wonder the Occupiers are incensed?
In truth, the Tea Partiers and Occupiers are both right. It has been the failure of government to live up to its obligations to the people, combined with the success of large companies to transform the American economic system into an oligarchy of corporate capitalism that has all but eviscerated the American Dream.
Evidence that the Tea Party and the Wall Street Occupiers are both on the right track – as “the people” usually are – is offered in the way “the establishment” has responded. There seems to be a fear that if the two protest movements were to combine, then real changes could be forced upon a faltering leadership. The strategy of those who fear this – both in government and business – is to divide and pit the Tea Partiers and the Occupiers against each other, and there are plenty of examples that show this is precisely what is happening.
A recent New York Times article by Kate Zernike neatly advanced this “divide and suppress” strategy. In the piece, “Wall Street Protest Isn’t Like Ours, Tea Party Says,” she quotes a conservative radio host critical of the Occupiers as saying, “This is the first occupation many of these people have seen in years.” This guy may have been trying to dismiss the Occupier protest with humor, but he really made their point. These people have plenty of leisure time to occupy Wall Street because they have not been able to find gainful employment.
Eric Cantor, the Republican House Majority Leader, while catering to the Tea Party, has called the Occupiers “a mob.” Meanwhile Herman Cain, Republican candidate for president, has said that the problems the Occupiers complain about would be resolved, “if they would just go out and get a job.” Of course he did not explain just who would give them and 14 million other unemployed a job. Apparently trying to maintain the fiction that these two movements have nothing in common, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey declared, “If you told the Occupy Wall Street people and the Tea Party that they are the same, they would hit you.” The Tea Party has also received the slings and arrows from the Liberal side that has depicted the movement as simply “obstructionist, uncompromising and intent on destroying government.”
When National Leadership Fails
The real problem is not with the Tea Party or the Occupy Wall Street movement, but it is a failure of national leadership – both Republicans and Democrats – to attune their thinking to the real problems of the people and to coalesce the “power of the people” in order to make the real changes that will reawaken the American Dream. These “leaders” are too busy trying to keep their own jobs, rather than finding jobs for others.
Needed, but lacking, is a national leader who can harness the power of these movements to rebalance the relationship of government with its people and the corporations in a way that would provide the needed services, protections and economic opportunity for all that made America great. This means a government that is as responsive to the needs of the people as it is to the corporations. We need leaders who will demand nothing less than an economic environment that protects the consumer against the excesses of greed and malfeasance, while encouraging investing in America, more than it does investing in foreign countries. It means creating a tax system that will require all to pay their fair share, rather than favoring one class over another. More than anything else, what is needed is a leader who will recognize that the constructive value of government is to invest in America in order to create the opportunity for people to work hard and earn what they get, rather than a government that takes from the many to give to a few.
Since there seems to be no end in sight for the withering of the American Dream, it’s my belief that both of these movements will grow and spread to millions of others who share the same core beliefs, but who can’t or won’t take their protest to the streets. Think Vietnam in the 60s. First it was the radicals protesting; then the intellectuals and academia, then the majority of Americans agreed it was a dumb war and we ought to withdraw. And that collective force made the war’s end politically possible. When you’ve got close to 90% of people saying America is on the “wrong track” there is massive discontent. I hope the politicos are listening. If they’re not, the Tea Partiers, the Occupiers and that discontented majority will eventually throw the rascals out.
And the Moral of the Story …
There are those who will argue that America is beset with problems because we have failed to recognize or accept that the world has changed; that it is more complicated, interrelated and codependent. Regardless of how the world may have changed, if a leader emerges with the insight to understand the exasperations of both the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement and has the courage to redress them in a constructive and positive way; then such a leader will be able to marshal the power of these groups to reenergize both the government and the economy in such a way as to allow America to once again lead the world that it indeed created. And the end result will be a rebirth of the American Dream. Will the real volunteer for America please step forward?