Oct. 16, 2011 – 6:33 p.m.
Political Economy: Right, Meet Left
By John Cranford, CQ Columnist
It happens from time to time that American politics takes on the character of a Mobius strip on which the colors of the ideological spectrum blur and those who tend toward the conservative end come to resemble those who are more liberal.
Often, it seems, this confluence occurs when political discourse takes on a populist tone, when voter unrest is on the rise and when the focal point of that unrest is some monolithic facade — say, the federal government or Corporate America.
That’s where we are today. And that’s why the seemingly left-leaning folks of the Occupy Wall Street movement look and sound, from a respectable distance, so much like the tea party, particularly when it was in its infancy.
And that’s why politicians of all stripes ought to be wary of dismissing the “occupiers,” just as some Democrats must rue the way they dismissed the tea party.
To be clear, it’s difficult to imagine that many tea party adherents would camp out in Zuccotti Park or McPherson Square alongside those who would occupy Wall Street or D.C. — although apparently there are some. Too many differences in age, lifestyle, fundamental ideology and perhaps temperament would make such wholesale communing unlikely.
Nonetheless, the underlying sentiment that brought disparate groups together under the tea party banner two years ago is precisely what drives occupiers to band together in New York, Washington, Missoula, Mont., Springfield, Mo., and elsewhere. Pressed hard by a stubbornly weak economy, Americans of all points of view have for some time felt disenfranchised by a government that was supposed to protect their interests and dismissed by industries that were supposed to serve and employ them. The tea party is but one manifestation of this disillusionment; the occupy movement is another.
At a time when Washington is frozen in ideological gridlock, the only business that seems to get done falls at the nexus of interests that appear to most favor those with political and economic power. Bipartisanship is the order of the day only rarely — and in ways that many Americans plainly regard as suspect.
Consider the bailouts. However necessary extraordinary financial intervention might be on occasion to preserve the nation’s economy, bailouts leave a sour taste in almost everyone’s mouth. None are more inclined to spit about them, though, than those who say they didn’t get a dime’s worth of benefit from the bipartisan Troubled Asset Relief Program.
And what about trade agreements? Free trade has been a central tenet of U.S. economic policy for a half-century — embraced by Democratic and Republican presidents and Congresses alike and widely regarded as a crucial reason the American economy produces a quarter of the world’s output with less than 5 percent of the population. But when 14 million Americans are unemployed, there’s strong resonance in claims that opening the nation’s doors to additional imports will only help workers overseas.
Embracing the Rebels
For Washington politicians, getting a handle on grass-roots movements, even or perhaps especially those that are vaguely anarchist, can be difficult. To their discredit, Democrats dismissed the tea party in the last election cycle and paid a heavy price. Abetted by the likes of Dick Armey’s Freedomworks, Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the Chamber of Commerce, the tea party was diverted into serving as an engine for the GOP surge in 2010.
Republicans have started down that same dismissive path with the occupiers. In a speech two weeks ago, House Republican leader
Similarly, GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney called the movement “dangerous.” And fellow White House contender Herman Cain said, “Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks — if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.”
Political Economy: Right, Meet Left
All three have since walked back a bit from their brash earlier comments, although Cantor persists in his complaints about the nature of the protest. “To sit here and vilify one sector of the economy, industries, is not helpful,” he said last week.
Perhaps the toned-down GOP rhetoric is a reflection of polls showing that most Americans are aware of the occupy movement and that a plurality of those surveyed tend to view the occupiers favorably. In fact, the occupiers rate more highly in polls than the tea party, which has lost some of its luster — perhaps because of its links to the Republican Party, which is just a part of the power elite that these protest movements say they want to change.
It’s much too early to say that the occupiers represent a liberal counterweight to the tea party — which might not necessarily benefit the Democrats in any event. But grass-roots protests such as this one are an ingrained part of American culture and tend to have their roots in real disaffection. Politicians who regard participants as marginal, self-absorbed or overindulged do so only at their peril.