Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party: Any common ground?

It was bound to happen.

Over the last couple of years the TEA Party has had such public areas as the Washington Mall and Capitol Hill virtually all to themselves. Their presence and enthusiasm served as living proof that the greatest government guarantee on the globe today – the 1st Amendment to the United States Constitution – is alive and well. The free exercise of religion as embodied by the Glenn Beck/TEA Party rally on the Lincoln Memorial, the right to peaceably assemble, the right to exercise free speech and to petition the government were all on full display at the numerous TEA Party events.

So it was bound to happen that the counterparts to the TEA Party on the leftward end of the political spectrum would awaken and head to the streets with the barons of Wall Street as their targets. Their cause has been labeled the “Occupy Wall Street Movement.”

It is to be assumed that the reaction of disgust at the “mobs” who would challenge the nation’s most financially successful, as expressed by U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, would also be predictable. When laid side-by-side the film footage of the TEA Party acting out on the ideological right and the Occupy Wall Street crowd on the left is interesting and at times downright humorous. On the one hand there are the hoards dressed in, sometimes homemade, colonial uniforms with numerous tea bags dangling from their three-cornered hats. The signs they carry depict U. S. President Obama as Hitler, Stalin, or they superimpose the President’s head onto the body of a monkey.

Not to be outdone Occupy Wall Streeters have been seen staggering stiff leggedly down the street with faces painted an ashen color and dripping fake blood to depict zombies. Certainly these are both cases of freedom of expression to the maximum. But in a deeper sense, what can be made of these public displays of displeasure with the government and with the rich corporate and financial interests domiciled on Wall Street?

First, a comment or two as to the acts of the demonstrators themselves is in order. Our free and democratic government makes available to us an array of ways to express our preferences as to how government should operate. In addition to conventional means of expression such as campaigning, voting, and displaying yard signs in favor of a candidate or a cause there are increasingly more unconventional means of political participation. Picketing or marching while carrying signs and shouting slogans in an effort to draw attention to a deeply felt cause is an example of a more unconventional means of acting politically.

Taking one’s cause “to the streets” with a critical mass of those who have similar beliefs has been a successful tactic in the past. Political scientists speak of feelings of “political efficacy,” which is that point when a person feels that he/she is being heard and responded to, i.e. that they are being effective in getting a political message across. When campaigning or voting fail to satiate that desire to be politically effective then often the stakes are raised on the level of activity designed to bring this about. The last bouts of major demonstrations that got the attention of the entire nation were during the 1960’s and the 1970’s when the demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights demonstrations combined to make many observers wonder if the legitimacy of the United States government itself was being called into question.

Oddly enough, despite the seemingly unbridgeable chasm that exists between the TEA Party activists and the Occupy Wall Street crowd their cause is similar. Both claim to be marching to call attention to the demise of the middle class. The TEA Party blames what it calls an overreaching government, both in its taxing habits and profligate expenditures for all the ills that befall citizens as well as Wall Street. Their counterparts on the left, while miffed at government bailouts of corporate and financial institutions, feel deeply betrayed that these entities took their tax money and turned their backs on them.

The point that unites these opposing camps is a growing angst that the demise of middle class America may in fact be permanent. These fears have been fed in recent years by a significant amount of scholarly analysis revealing the widening income gap between the haves and the have-nots.

It was said of Dr. Martin Luther King’s concept of non-violent civil disobedience that it was not his belief that such marches could solve the problem, but that they were essential in focusing attention on the problem. Once the issues have come clearly into view then negotiations toward solutions may begin. Present indications are that our Congressional policy makers have yet to yearn for that problem solving middle ground. What will happen when the folks with the three-cornered hats and tea bags and the crowd covered in grease paint and red food coloring head for the Washington Mall on the same day?

Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at marty@sig.msstate.edu.

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