Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party: Uncomfortable Bed Mates

In a recent article on the use (or lack thereof) of the term class warfare, I made a passing jab at FoxNews and the Tea Party. I’m not a fan of bandwagons and broad generalizations that may make for easy writing but ultimately unsatisfying reading, and so I thought it worthwhile to further explore these comments in the interest of measuring their veracity. Because as much as Liberals and Occupy Wall Street sympathizers and/or activists may abhor the idea, in its earliest inception and at its most fundamental core, the Tea Party had a lot in common with the Occupy movement.

Before it admittedly became hijacked by conservative social issues and cloying Republicans desperate for the loving affection of voters in their obscenely gerrymandered districts, the Tea Party represented anger and frustration not over the darkness of the President’s skin (as Bill Maher and so many Liberal pundits would have us believe), but the undue influence of corporations and Wall Street financial institutions upon our government. The Tea Party’s origins reflected an anti-establishment movement that, while perhaps not concerned with a more egalitarian distribution of wealth reflected in Occupy Wall Street, was at least invested in rectifying a system of institutionalized corruption that favors corporate interests over American workers.

Since then the Tea Party has come to be regarded by the Left as a radical appendage of a Republican party that has veered far to the right. It is unfortunately true that the Tea Party has devolved into a wholesale defense of “free markets” and corporations’ right to act in their own capitalist interests under the apparent belief that this will somehow benefit the Tea Party working class. This is how the idea of preserving the interests of “job creators” has become a brilliant ploy on the part of wealthy interests intent on avoiding a return to financial regulation and a fairer tax code. And so what began as a working class movement has instead become a working class army governed by corporate interests that ply that army’s anger with an ideology shaped by equivocations and obfuscations—or what we might otherwise qualify as lies predicated upon an ideologically unsound position.

As mentioned in an earlier post, by embracing the idea of class warfare as a difference of ideologies rather than a clash of haves and have-nots, we better highlight the injustice of a malfunctioning class system rather than a resentment of those who occupy its uppermost tiers. And thus so many Tea Party members’ inscrutable defense of that disproportionate wealth structure could be shaped into a better understanding of that system’s corruption through a better articulation of the facts. Because a class warfare described as simply a clash of haves and have-nots ultimately serves the interests of the haves, insofar as such a clash looks more like a division of envy than of ideological difference. This is the sort of description that Fox News and conservative and Tea Party pundits alike enlist as a criticism of movements like Occupy Wall Street: that it’s only an attack on the rich.

However, simply blaming the rich is often and easily rebutted by the claim that many of those who are rich earned their money. It’s not necessarily untrue, for instance, for Libertarians and Fox News anchors to promote those Horatio Alger tales of magnates and tycoons who have “pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps.” The only necessary codicil to those accounts is that those stories are noteworthy in part because they are so rare. We’re all well aware of the Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and even Larry Ellison’s of the world, to say nothing of Jerry Jones, Jack Welch, and Adam Carolla.

But while these stories may appeal to the sensibilities of Fox News’s working class viewers, they fail to take into account not just their rarity, but what Michael Lewis described in a recent commencement speech as flat-out luck. Luck to have caught the right breaks, the right connections, even the right timing, saying “Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.” When was the last time you heard anything even remotely similar to this coming from Fox News, Mitt Romney, or any of the vast contingent of conservative radio hosts?

Unfortunately as the keyhole through which one must pass to become not just wealthy but merely to transition from one income quintile to the next continues to shrink, that sentiment of ‘owing a debt to the unlucky’ has become increasingly silenced.

However, even Lewis’s beneficent imploration to the lucky on behalf of the unlucky serves only a superficial solution. Because even if the lucky were to behave according to Lewis’s suggestion, it would do nothing to correct the underlying systematic disadvantage that perpetuates the production of those very lucky few. Like conservatives and Libertarians who endlessly defend disproportionate wealth with appeals to their charitable donations, Lewis’s suggestion only provides a means by which this inequality might be endured.

Therefore we might be better advised to find a means to correct the systematic error that makes not just Fox News’s Horatio Alger stories but most all accounts of upward class mobility so rare. Their rarity is not simply an account of motivation, industriousness or ingenuity—their rarity is a reflection of a system that favors those at the very top and limits upward progression against the onslaught of debt, limited job availability, low wages (itself a product of low job availability) and a rigged system that rewards extortionist institutions that funnel money out of the U.S. into lower-cost oversees ventures. Rather than revere a small handful of 21st century Horatio Algers and their occasional charity, we would do better to embrace the necessity of changing the imbalance that precipitates the Horatio Alger rarity and the need for their charity.

OWS might thus take the lead in this campaign by adopting a common set of ideas which would inevitably highlight the movement’s similarity to the origins of the Tea Party movement. Scary as that may sound to both sides, social issues only obfuscate the ideas that matter most, and both OWS and the Tea Party should embrace their common agendas and forego their superficial disagreements.

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