Bad economic times have spawned protest movements throughout American history. President Obama’s miserable economy - the worst since the Great Depression - has birthed populist movements of the left and right. First up were the Tea Party activists of the right, who had such a decisive impact on the 2010 elections. Now comes Occupy Wall Street, another populist protest against the status quo. While demonizing the Tea Party, Democrats profess to love the occupiers as the true voice of the average American. Though both movements are anti-establishment, there are major differences in outlook, tactics and effectiveness. But there is no doubt that whoever can capture the angst and anger of voters still unsure of their economic prospects will hold the high ground in the coming national elections. Early indications are that Republicans have a clear advantage.
According to CBS/New York Times polling, Tea Party activists lean ideologically to the right, with a strong libertarian streak. They tend to be older, more conservative and better educated than the general population. A slight majority identify themselves as Republicans and the rest as independent, but many dropped out of the political process in the recent past and have only recently re-engaged. They are concerned primarily about economic issues, especially the expansion of the federal government under Mr. Obama. They think government does more harm than good to the economy, and they reject the idea that government can best guarantee Americans’ economic future. In the words of Ronald Reagan, they believe government is part of the problem, not the solution.
Because their movement is young and relatively chaotic, an accurate profile of occupiers is hard to come by. However, Democratic pollster Doug Schoen interviewed a number of participants in New York City’s Lower Manhattan. He found that in many ways, the movement traces its lineage to the protests of the 1960s. Ninety-eight percent of participants support civil disobedience to achieve its goals, and 31 percent would support violence under some circumstances. Like the Tea Partyers, they bemoan the current economy and lack of opportunity, but they favor more, not less governmental action and blame banks and large financial institutions for our economic tailspin. According to Mr. Schoen’s polling, 65 percent say government has a moral responsibility to guarantee all citizens access to affordable health care, a college education and a secure retirement, regardless of cost. Needless to say, nearly 4 of 5 favor higher taxes on the “rich.”
The Tea Party has a very specific policy agenda. Its overarching goal is to reduce the role of the federal government, which would include lowering taxes, cutting the federal budget and eliminating Mr. Obama’s health care reform bill, priorities also supported by a majority of Americans. Tea Partyers favor policies that create jobs but reject the idea that this can be accomplished best through more government spending and stimulus measures.
The occupiers’ agenda is harder to pinpoint. They generally decry the lack of economic opportunity but haven’t articulated a clear set of policies to change the status quo, save a general desire for more government assistance. Mr. Schoen warns that occupiers’ values “are dangerously out of touch with the broad mass of the American people” and says Democrats’ support for the movement risks alienating moderate and swing voters.
Tea Partyers have embraced political action to change the status quo. While forming their own organizations, they also have worked to support conservatives in Republican primaries and were heavily involved in the 2010 midterm elections that saw a change to Republican control in the House of Representatives. They already are involved in campaigns to elect more conservatives to Congress and have enlisted in the effort to oust Mr. Obama next year.
What are the aims of the occupiers? What occupier organizations have they formed? Their protests already are degenerating into chaos and sometimes violence. Democratic mayors who embraced their aims are turning against them. Are the occupiers focused on political activity or just more demonstrations and sit-ins? Given their chaotic form and extreme views, can they be a real force in the important elections next year? Democrats hope so and are desperate to co-opt the movement for their own ends.
The data suggest that will be difficult. It seems there is one thing Tea Party activists and occupiers have in common. The Tea Party came into being as a reaction to Mr. Obama’s big-government, high-tax economic policies and is dedicated to replacing him next year. Occupiers believe in even larger government, but, according to Mr. Schoen’s polling, just 48 percent of occupiers intend to vote for the president’s re-election.
The bad news for the president is that populist anger and public demand for real change almost always mean a new occupant in the White House.
Frank Donatelli is chairman of GOPAC.
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