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Will the Real Rebels Please Stand Up

David Callahan

So it turns out that I'm not the only one tired of comparisons between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Yesterday, leaders of the nation's biggest Tea Party group -- Tea Party Patriots -- issued a statement saying they didn't like being compared to the Wall Street protesters who:

when they are intelligible, want less of what made America great and more of what is damaging to America: a bigger, more powerful government to come in and take care of them so they don't have to work like the rest of us who pay our bills.

So that's what OWS wants -- coddling by Uncle Sam. Good that somebody finally cleared that up.

Seriously, comparisons between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are common in the media, and the two movement do share some similarities. Most importantly, it is true that we live in a populist era in which trust in nearly all major institutions is extremely low.

The Tea Party channels the deep distrust of government that has been part of American life for over thirty years, while Occupy Wall Street voices the fears many Americans have of private power and especially the financial industry. Both movements also deeply distrust the establishment leaders of the two political parties (although not necessarily the parties themselves, as I explain below). In addition, both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street have little use for the mainstream media. Finally, both movements are largely decentralized, with many different groups springing up and no clear hierarchy of authority.

While this new age of populism is driven by profound public disenchantment with institutions, it is made possible by new social media. The Occupytogether page on now lists 1,564 groups worldwide, with over 1,300 groups in the U.S. planning meetings this month. The Tea Party also made major use of social media, with some 2,000 Tea Party-related Facebook pages created by 2010.

So, yes, definitely some operational similarities between OWS and the Tea Party. Ideologically, though, the two movements couldn't be further apart. The Tea Party has been a leading ally for private power and privileged groups, while OWS is all about challenging America's rule by wealth elites. The Tea Party wants an even less regulated form of capitalism than what we've had in recent decades while OWS is questioning whether capitalism works in the interests of ordinary people.

Consider who the Tea Party supporters actually are, based on the most in-depth analyses of these activists. Scholars Robert Putnam and David Campbell explored this question based on a survey of 3,000 Americans:

Early on, Tea Partiers were often described as nonpartisan political neophytes. Actually, the Tea Party’s supporters today were highly partisan Republicans long before the Tea Party was born, and were more likely than others to have contacted government officials. In fact, past Republican affiliation is the single strongest predictor of Tea Party support today.

That finding echoes other research. A 2010 report on the Tea Party movement by the Democracy Corps, a progressive polling group, found that supporters were overwhelmingly white, conservative Republicans who hold more favorable views of business than other segments of the electorate. Likewise, a major New York Times poll, also in 2010, found that Tea Party supporters "tend to be Republican, white, male, married and older than 45." That poll also found that Tea Partyers were wealthier and better educated than most Americans, and believed the top priority of the Tea Party should be to "reduce federal government." A Pew poll in 2011 found that Tea Party supporters were less critical of corporate profits than other groups. 

For the past century, progressives have advocated a stronger federal government in order to check the power of business and the wealthy -- and also to wrest away privilege from white males by ensuring opportunities for all groups in society.

The Tea Party may be a populist movement and it supporters may say and believe that their goal is to empower ordinary people. Polls have certainly found some appetite among Tea Party supporters for reining in Wall Street and raises taxes on the rich. But, fundamentally, the Tea Party's anti-government agenda serves to further increase the dominance of big business and the wealthy over U.S. society, and strip away hard-won protections for historically marginalized groups. The close allegiance of the Tea Party to the Republican Party's right wing reinforces this, since today's radicalized GOP is the best friend that business has ever had in Washington.

The light regulation of American capitalism, along with relatively low tax rates, has already produced the highest levels of economic inequality in the industrialized world. If the Tea Party gets it ways, we'll have even more inequality.

Of course, populist movements for conservative causes -- or a repressive status quo -- are nothing new. Take away peoples' privileges and they tend to revolt. The Ku Klux Klan started as a populist movement and so did the Christian right. The Tea Party is best understood in this tradition. (And no, I'm not comparing them to the Klan.)

It's too early to say, empirically, who is part of Occupy Wall Street. But one thing is clear: These are not Americans committing to further empowering the already powerful.