The Occupy Baltimore protest today at the Inner Harbor, and the protests on Wall Street that inspired it and similar demonstrations around the country, are a welcome sign that outrage at the nation's political and economic system isn't confined to the political right. It isn't just conservatives who are mad about what's going on in this country, and the spreading protest movement among a markedly diverse coalition of people, fostered by a heavy reliance on social media, has the potential to add a left-leaning strain of populism that has been missing from the conversation.
The movement is a leaderless one and lacks specific goals or agendas, but the main thrust of the protesters' ire is that corporate greed and a political system beholden to moneyed special interests have created a system that provides immense benefit to a small group of people at the expense of everyone else. The rallying cry is, "We are the 99 percent" — as opposed to the 1 percent who control an increasing and wildly disproportionate share of the nation's wealth. Protesters make comparisons between their movement and those of the Arab Spring that resulted in the overthrow of governments that had seemed impervious to the popular will.
But the Occupy Together protests (an umbrella term for the national movement) have much more in common with the tea party than members of either group would likely want to admit. The tea party started with a CNBC rant about the prospect of bailouts for people who took on foolish mortgages, and the Occupy protests started on Wall Street because of anger about government bailouts of a finance industry that took foolish risks. The two groups come to different and to some degree opposing conclusions about the cause of the nation's problems; the tea party blames an overreaching federal government, and the Occupy Together protesters generally blame corporate greed and its enablers in Washington. But they are responding to the same anxiety — a sense that the deck is stacked against ordinary people and that the American dream of getting ahead in life is slipping away.
The encampment near Wall Street has lasted longer and has had much wider influence than most people might have guessed when it started last month. But if the protesters aspire for it to have real impact on the direction of national policy, they could learn a few lessons from tea party.
That movement has certainly benefited from friendly coverage on Fox News and the financial backing of the billionaire Koch brothers, among others, avenues that are not likely open to the Occupy Together crowd. But what has helped make the tea party a mass movement that is now, to a large extent, calling the shots in the House of Representatives and in the Republican presidential nominating contest is its sharp focus and its willingness to engage directly in the political process. The tea party movement deliberately eschews talk of social issues like abortion or gay rights, and it deals little with foreign policy. That allows people who may disagree about many issues to coalesce around the one thing they do agree on, which is that the federal government is too big and needs to be reined in.
The General Assembly of the Occupy Wall Street protest (an all-comers group operating by consensus gauged through a set of hand signals) issued a manifesto on Sept. 29 listing a set of grievances that includes: large executive bonuses at banks that got government bailouts; the ills of industrial agriculture; the death penalty; pharmaceutical firms' efforts to block the sale of generic medications; corporate campaign spending; outsourcing; racial and sex discrimination; and the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction. It ends with an asterisk ("These grievances are not all-inclusive") and a call for the people of the world to "assert your power" and "make your voices heard." To what end, it doesn't say.
The Occupy Together movement is still in its infancy, and it has plenty of time to sharpen is message and to advocate for specific goals. We hope that it does. The tea party movement has given voice to millions, but it doesn't speak for everyone who feels left out and wants to change the direction of the country. Events like today's protest at the Inner Harbor, or those in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago and elsewhere, help send that message. But turning that into results is going to take more than few hundred or thousand protesters in the public square. The forces the protesters are fighting are focused and disciplined; they need to be too.