Two movements, one core

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

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Robert Corson
Tue, 10/18/2011 - 8:55am
The Occupy Wall Street crowd seems to be a manifestation of the growing culture of entitlement, that one is owed something without putting in any effort to get it. And a stark difference with the Tea Party is the Occupy folks' lack of civil, orderly protest, with many arrests every day.
Tue, 10/18/2011 - 2:11pm
From the Civil War to civil rights nothing of substance changes in this country without a fight. The Tea Party is fighting for a two class country led by Rupert Murdoch's Fox News and its excesses. Their Tea Party candidates quietly pass the renewal of the invasive Patriot Act while criticizing big government and do nothing to end the war on drugs that invades individual rights as prohibition did by legislating morality. Large corporations win either way through less regulation or more money to bend government to its demands through subsidizes or tax loopholes. Warren Buffet says tax the rich and Ron Paul says cut the tax-funded and outdated military and nobody is listening except the left. The Tea Party needs to think for itself and join the protesters on Wall Street because of similar frustrations but Fox News says not too so they don't. Too bad. They might come to know and develop a respect for each other out of the vitriol.
John in Alaska
Tue, 10/18/2011 - 11:17am
Last week I marched with Occupy Wall Street protesters in Fairbanks, Alaska in what may have been the farthest north show of solidarity. I was surrounded by signs that said "America for Sale" "Globalization Kills" and "End Corporate Entitlement." There were speeches from military veterans and Alaska natives, people with experience with occupying forces. It was civil, orderly and informed and as 130 of us marched through the downtown business area we chanted in favor of small business and against war as a tool for profit. It made me very proud to be an American and an Alaskan, surrounded by people who got off the couch and got involved. There is a growing culture of entitlement in America, but it exists in the CEO's of massive corporations and American politicians who get lifelong, free health insurance and above average incomes the more they pander to the entitled. That is not a good system and it is our American duty to change it.
Rebecca Gale-Go...
Tue, 10/18/2011 - 11:41am
Our political system is deadlocked primarily because of a Republican majority in congress that is blocking all progress, even ideas brought forward by them in the past. You failed to mention this. This is a false comparison the Tea Party which is most definitely race based angry white people who wanted to see a birth certificate and who are trying to pin the country's economic woes on the current president, which is purely a coordinated effort by the right and backed by corporate giants like the Koch brothers is in no way equal or just as the 99% or Occupy Wall Street protestors. The so called "mob" a.k.a Occupy Wall Street or 99% is an organized group of protesters, ordinary citizens who want to see social justice in this country. Corporate greed and bank bail outs that resulted in unprecedented wealth for the same criminals who are responsible for this debacle as well as declining salaries and benefits; along side union busting and broken promises; and myriad of other compromises on constitution of the united states are what the 99% or Occupy Wall Street group are fighting to against. To call them a mob and not make that same reference to the Tea Partiers is probably because there are a lot more citizens involved in this movement than in the corporate funded Tea Party, or it could just be that once again because these folks aren't in suits and ties and they are made up of the melting pot of ethnicity that our great democracy envisions, equality for all, perhaps this too is a race based statement. The Tea Party movement was more vocal about the bail out of the auto industry which was directly helping save millions of jobs, both the Tea Party and the Republican party like to point that out as a failure instead of the success that it really was. I think you are serving a political agenda and its more clear than ever.
Thu, 10/20/2011 - 9:32am
"What that does is leave around 70 percent of the country largely outside the existing system, uninvolved and increasingly disaffected." Phil you hit it right on the head. We're in this situation where 15% of each spectrum has designed a system to protect their ability to dictate policy and direction for the 70% in the middle. OWS talks about the "Other 99" - which is linked to all of this. The 15% on either end of the spectrum, protect the 1% of the economic winners. If we can design a system that better represents the 70% politically, I think we'll see better sharing of the gains to globalization and equality of income distribution for the 99%. This is where I come to Primary Reform. We need to follow the California example and cut out the absurd control parties get from the structure of primary elections. Single ballot open primary, top 2 regardless of party affiliation move onto the general election. This will allow all voters to participate (no closed primaries) and encourage independents/moderates to engage, thus forcing the debate to the middle during the primary season and getting more moderate candidates on the final ballot - not just the favorites of a 7.51% of either end (half of 15%).