As the Occupy Wall Street movement continues to march on, around the world, but particularly in the United States, Tea Party analogies are becoming steadily more mainstream. Right-wing pundits now routinely compare-and-negatively-contrast the two groups; I particularly enjoyed this recent cartoon by Eric Allie, which wonderfully summarizes the double-standard in press coverage — at least in conservative eyes. But then you also have Jon Stewart on TV every night concluding the exact opposite, with his damning clips of Republican politicians praising the “grassroots activism” of the Tea Party in one breath while denouncing the frightening “mob mentality” of OWS the next.
At least one major difference between the two movements is undeniable, however: unlike the Tea Party’s eager embrace of the Republican Party, OWS has shown no real interest in becoming a force in Democratic politics. If anything, it’s just as opposed to them as any. Listening to the Slate culture podcast today, host Stephen Metcalf compared the group to the American radicals of the 1960s, in the sense that a great deal of both subcultures’ momentum was spawned from disillusionment with a supposedly activist, liberal president (originally Kennedy, now Obama) who proved to be far more moderate and establishment-friendly in office than he seemed on the campaign trial. And just as the 1960s saw a significant withdrawal of left-wing Americans from mainstream politics in favor of street protests, sit-ins, and underground newspapers, so too may the 2010s see a left that is highly visible and loud, but also located mostly on the fringes. And the results may be just as predictable. The post-Kennedy era of left-wing disillusionment, alienation, and protest did not beget a more liberal administration in the White House, after all, but rather Richard Nixon.
Why the American far-left possesses such aggressive distain for working within the party system, while the American far-right seems to have few qualms about embracing it, has never been entirely clear to me. I know leftists like to play the victim card and argue the self-interested political establishment hates their radical ideas too much to “allow” their entry into the halls of power, but the Tea Party folks are hardly elite favorites either. No matter how much Chomsky you’ve read, it’s hard to deny that Tea Party opinions on, say, the Gold Standard or 17th Amendment, are every bit as heretical to the close-minded Washington consensus as some of OWS’ views on Citizens United or whatever. If anything, judging from recent polls, the fringy OWS may actually be the movement more in tune with mainstream public opinion, giving them more impetus than ever to start voting in primaries and fielding candidates. But as it stands now, apparently less than 30% of the folks on the street even self-identify as Democrats at all.
The most plausible explanation, I guess, is that the American far-left tends to be avante garde and post-modern in a way even the most radical right-winger rarely is. Which is to say, while a hard-right conservative may be inclined to view electoral democracy as corrupt and flawed and wicked and decadent, he’ll usually lack the intellectual creativity or interest to dream up something better. The far-left, in contrast, does little else. Even OWS itself, with its daily general assemblies, consensus-based decision-making, gender-balanced speakers lists, and non-judgemental finger-wiggling, seems to be busily training its supporters for participation in some utopian political system that doesn’t yet exist, rather than the dreary parliamentary Congressional model they already have. Spend enough time in this idealized world, and a New Hampshire primary must start to look like a Nuremberg rally.
The left, in short, doesn’t seem to tolerate imperfection very well, unlike the right, who seem somewhat oblivious to it. A nominally conservative politician — like say, some sort of theoretical Texas governor-cum-president — can ratchet up spending, create expensive new entitlement programs, promote amnesty for illegal aliens, and overcommit America’s armies in multiple open-ended nation-building adventures, and still be regarded as too sacred to criticize openly. Perhaps it says something about the conservative’s basic affinity for leaders and authority, but for all the right’s dislike of government and politicians, they sure seem willing to make heroes of an awful lot of very flawed rulers, from Ronald Reagan to Sarah Palin. Meanwhile, even the mainstream of the Democratic Party can’t seem to agree if Bill Clinton was good or bad.
I don’t support a lot of the causes that the far-left peddles, but this haughty tone of self-righteous indignation for the flaws of everyone but themselves has always irritated me far more than any of their ideas. The Tea Party has obviously begun to embrace some of this themselves, of course, destroying the careers of decent politicians for various real or imagined crimes of RINOism, but even then, they’re at least willing to concede that change had to start somewhere within the existing political machine. As someone who lives in a country without open primaries or the right to party self-identification enshrined in law, it’s similarly more than a little fatiguing to listen to young, college-educated intellectuals rant endlessly about how undemocratic the United States is, and how changing the face of Congress is too impossible to even bother trying. Even Tea Party victories have to be explained away with elaborate conspiracy theories about how the whole populist phenomenon is really just an astroturf sham being puppeteered by shadowy plutocrats behind the scenes.
For any democratic system to be legitimate, it must effectively represent the broad spectrum of ideological opinion that exists within the society it seeks to govern. For that reason, even those who consider their cause odious should find at least something inspiring in the rise of the Tea Party. By continuing to denounce and opt-out of mainstream politics, however, the Occupy Wall Street crowd are proving themselves to be the anti-Tea Party in more ways than one.