To most observers, the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements could not be more different. The right-of-center Tea Party tends to be tightly focused on taxes and the size and intrusiveness of government.
And it has been steadily growing in power, driving its parent Republican Party to the right. It’s a movement with an agenda that, since it burst on the scene in 2009, has been changing our national discourse.
The leftish Occupy Wall Street movement is, of course, far, far newer. At this moment it’s hard to tell whether it’s a mob, a full-fledged movement or just a moment in time. Certainly, it’s an outcry against the way things are ... and those perceived as being responsible.
But if you peer a bit harder, the Tea Partiers and those who would “occupy” Wall Street are much alike in three fundamental ways:
First, their rise has been greatly assisted by the new social media -- Facebook, Twitter, Linked In and any number of other similar platforms.
Whether or not you chat or tweet, there’s no doubt that the power of social media today to bring people together is nothing short of revolutionary. But while the technology has changed – and will keep on changing – this isn’t really a new game. Great political power has always flowed to those who first learn to use and exploit the power of a new medium.
Take Martin Luther; a genius, of course. But it was not just his theological attack on Roman Catholicism that made him the mover and shaker he was. It was his mastery of the new medium of printing in the 16th century that enabled his allies to publish and distribute the Bible, translated and written in the vernacular, and his other writings. And this enabled him change to history.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke in the 1930s and '40s to the entire country in major speeches and homey “fireside chats” carried by the newly national medium of radio. His personality came directly into every living room in America – I remember watching my grandparents huddled around the radio with the glowing green dial in their living room, listening to their president.
FDR’s mastery of the new medium of radio was at the core of his political success – and his winning four terms in the White House.
And for those of a certain age (like me) -- who can ever forget President John F. Kennedy’s dazzling use of television, which was then, again, a relatively new medium? He won a close election in 1960 in part by looking like a president on TV, especially in contrast to his sallow and five-o’clock-shadowed opponent.
Once in White House, Kennedy’s televised press conferences showed the country an increasingly confident, informed and articulate national leader.
Technology, of course, is not all there is to it. Both the Tea Party and the Wall Street occupiers are, at heart, reactions to a stubbornly bad economy, one that combines high and persistent unemployment with great resistance to traditional economic remedies. The Tea Party’s preoccupation with levels of national debt and the Occupy Wall Street’s rage at the unpunished and powerful bankers and financiers are both natural responses to our crisis.
That’s not to say there aren’t other factors involved, too. Some in the anti-Wall Street movement clearly are acting out '60s protest fantasies. Deny it as they may, some Tea Partiers clearly resent our having a black President.
But what’s important about both movements is that we’re not just in a recession, but in what’s likely to be a decades-long period of slowly coping with the effects of high levels of debt throughout the entire world economy. That’s quite different from what we’ve been used to.
Lastly, people involved in both movements are reacting against a national political system in which both main parties are principally interested in power, not results. Both have functioned by stirring their respective political bases to greater partisanship. These hard-core believers are small slices of our body politics -- each representing something like 15 percent of the population.
What that does is leave around 70 percent of the country largely outside the existing system, uninvolved and increasingly disaffected.
Worse, if you’re not part of “the base” or a member of one of the single interest groups that infest the political environment, you’re not likely to have your views considered. The traditional Republican Party was just as surprised and taken aback by the sudden growth of “radical” Tea Partiers as the Democratic Party is uneasy and uncertain at the emergence of an “overeducated and underemployed mob” marching on Wall Street.
One of the signs carried by the marchers in New York reads, “We don’t trust our union.” And a Tea Party banner is a replica of the Revolutionary War one: “Don’t Tread on Me.” Both movements express citizen anger at an unresponsive political system, an anger fanned by new social media and deeply rooted in economic fear.
At the onset of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine wrote “these are the times that try men’s souls.” So they are now. And unless we can find a way to restore confidence in the center again, they’re likely to last a long, long time.
Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think-and-do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture. He is also on the board of the Center’s Business Leaders for Early Education. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of The Center. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.