How the tea party beat Occupy Wall Street

According to the author of the article, the Occupy movement failed to live up to its promise as a social and political force. Once the crackdowns began, camps across the country fell and so did the movement's visibility. It promised a big summer revival, but their actions in the last three months haven't received much attention.

By David Weidner
Aug. 21, 2012, 12:00 a.m. EDT
Market Watch

SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) — About a year ago I called Occupy Wall Street a “tea party with brains.”

Today, I’m the one who needs his head examined.

Occupy Wall Street, the movement critical of banks, the super-rich and their influence in our politics and daily lives, has failed to live up to its promise as an important social and political force.

Though its core message — that big finance and greed undermine society and corrupt our political system — is fundamentally correct, Occupy hasn’t lived up to the standard set by the tea party in its ability to turn grievance into a political force capable of disrupting the establishment.

The Occupy protests started on Sept. 17 of last year near Wall Street. They triggered a wave of Occupys across the United States, including major actions in Boston, Los Angeles and Oakland, Calif. Media attention followed. Polls showed 43% of Americans agreed with OWS beliefs.

Then the crackdowns began. Protesters at Zuccotti Park were uprooted in a midnight sweep. The confrontations with police went on for weeks, then months. Support waned. The tactics turned people off.

As Occupy camps across the country fell, so did the movement’s visibility. Occupy Wall Street disappeared from the nightly news, the New York Times, the Huffington Post and the blogs. OWS promised a big summer revival, but the actions of the last three months haven’t received much in the way of mainstream coverage, even in an election year.

Contrast OWS with the tea party. We’ve already heard about how that antitax movement has disrupted the moderate Republican establishment.

Whatever your opinion of either movement, there’s no denying that the tea party is more focused and influential. You don’t see but a handful of candidates such as Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders in Vermont pandering to Occupy Wall Street.

By contrast, every Republican running for anything worried about gaining tea-party support. And for good reason .

Some of Occupy’s failure is due to the power of the institutions it took on. Some of it is due to the extremes to which those institutions went to keep OWS out of the public eye.

But the biggest problem with the Occupy protests is the movement itself.

1. It has no message. Nearly a year after launching, you still hear people from OWS talking about global warming, Iraq and Afghanistan, natural fibers, the Koch brothers and everything except the financial system and how it fosters a deepening income inequality.

This isn’t to say there haven’t been successful messages such as “the 99%,” but getting that 99% to buy into a common cause has proven problematic.

2. It’s too weird. The costumes, the hippies, the hipsters, the Guy Fawkes masks — OWS just doesn’t translate to Middle America. It’s a coastal and urban thing. It matters because if people in Peoria see a bunch of masked hooligans fighting with police in New York, many of them will identify with the police.

3. It’s outspent . The securities, banking, real-estate and insurance industries have combined to dump $4.2 billion into national elections since 2006, more than any other sector.

4. It’s threatening. The masks are associated with the hacktivist group Anonymous, which most people are either afraid of or don’t understand. OWS also has a reputation for police confrontation that turns people off. Read report on rights violations by NYPD against OWS .

5. It’s a leftist, socialist, union-driven, Obama-driven, Democratic Party-driven effort. Overstatement? Not as much as you would think. A Fordham University poll conducted last year found that 80% of OWS respondents identified themselves as extremely liberal. One out of four considered themselves Democrats and 11% Socialists — but 39% said they didn’t subscribe to any political party.

If those distractions aren’t enough, there’s another, bigger reason that the tea-party movement influences policy and politics while OWS spends its time trying explain why it’s such a nuisance: OWS doesn’t have a plan.

The tea party wants to cut taxes. OWS wants, well, a long list of things including forgiveness of student-loan debt, an end to foreclosures, bank reform, balanced distribution of income. Ask about the specifics of how to do these things and responses differ. Some talk about supporting candidates, others talk about a multidecade journey. Some, it seems, think trespassing gets people excited.

Frankly, Occupy Wall Street still has it intuitively right. It is the influence of money, greed and our twisted, too-powerful financial system that are causing so much grief for so many Americans. (Six million homes have been lost to foreclosure since 2008.)

But understanding what ails us and delivering that message are different things. The tea-party movement’s antitax view may be oversimplified, but it’s clear.

That’s why the tea party is effective. It doesn’t take a lot of brains to know that’s the bottom line.

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