The word of the year has been “extreme,” usually to describe the Tea Party its hard line strategies for bringing down the deficit, lowering taxes, and supporting markets. Another vocabulary token, usually thrown around when political “extremism” needs a synonym, is “intransigent”. If a journalist was looking to shame plucky House members waffling on the debt ceiling, you can bet he talked about some pretty extreme intransigence occurring on Capital Hill. Mysteriously, I notice these political buzzwords have been generally absent in media descriptions of Occupy Wall Street. While I concede that OWS has given the Left a morale boost and vents understandable frustration, many of the policies and actions that have come to characterize the movement, such as universal debt repudiation, defecation on police cars, refusals to temporarily vacate private property, anti-Semitic rants, and the occasional hammer and sickle flag are, well, not mainstream. In fact, the Tea Party movement is far more moderate, and coherent, than OWS.
When one million Tea Partiers showed up on the National Mall on Sept 12, 2009 for their first big unifying rally, there wasn’t a single arrest. Tea Party folk were not seeking a standoff with the police and weren’t putting city leaders in the precarious position of balancing free speech with laws protecting private property, zoning, and park regulations. That’s quite different from flooding Lower Manhattan for an indefinite amount of time, taking advantage of private nearby restrooms, and refusing to evacuate, even temporarily, so the city could hose down Zuccotti Park. In New York City alone, residents have gotten stuck with $4 million in overtime costs. In contrast, as the Tea Party Express pulls into town, organizers are sure to file a permit and arrange for appropriate clean-up. Generally, they remove their tri-cornered hats and go home before dusk.
Whether or not they appreciate the Tea Party platform or Betsy Ross-inspired wardrobe, Americans understand where the Tea Party stands on the political issues of our day and judge accordingly. Meanwhile, the OWS contingent is, at best, jumbled. What’s more, it quotes from some controversial historical precedents. I, for one, associate the word “occupation” with military measures. Maybe the protestors truly wish to declare they are at war with the big banks, but I detect a degree of muddled irony when self-identifying “occupiers” are singing joyous renditions of “Give Peace a Chance.” According to former Clinton pollster Doug Schoen’s fieldwork, a third of the so-called occupiers approve of violent means to institute economic justice. If that percentage of Tea Partiers was displaying open hostility to law and order, conservatives would (and should) be called to explain their unruly selves. Now, the natural response is to dismiss violent characters as fringy. But when there is no overriding OWS platform or leadership structure, it’s hard to know whether bizarre behavior and beliefs are representative of the movement or not.
As Tea Partiers collected in town halls last summer, they were dismissed because wealthy libertarians like the Koch Brothers opened up their checkbooks to support them. Yet when AFL-CIO president Richard Trumpka joins the OWS festivities, he’s seen as a kindred spirit.
Love or hate the Tea Party, it certainly insists on holding both Republican and Democrats’ feet to the fire. It opposes the bailouts, the individual healthcare mandate, high taxes, and crony capitalism. Yet OWS is in the awkward position of smearing Wall Street while President Obama—whom a majority of protestors still support—kindled the auto bailouts, hired bureaucratic “Czars”, employs Tim Geithner, and handed out Solyndra loans. I admit I find it ironic when the same protestors who referring to the police as “chauvinist pigs” are also up in arms that Republicans aren’t getting behind more bills to—you guessed it—federally support the hiring of more police officers.
Many in the OWS squad harbor noble goals, but I worry at their sense of disenfranchisement under America’s Constitutional system. Some have aptly noted that America isn’t a direct democracy. They’re right, and that tends to be a good thing. Direct democracy simply cannot represent 300 million Americans. French Revolution-styled upheavals have a habit of getting counter-intuitive pretty fast. Napoleon, Stalin, Chavez and other revolutionaries-by-fiat are not egomaniacal exceptions. They represent the predictable culminations of uprisings that license unfettered democracy, at the expense of minority opinion, safety, and order.
To be clear, idealism does not deserve to be demonized. But we cannot govern a nation by forever storming the Bank of America Bastille. The best exit out of our national malaise ought to be more Constitutionalism, not less. I hope to channel my fury at the current hand-holding between Washington and Wall Street in the voting booth next year. OWS is begging for different, better leadership in government. I second that call, but I suspect friendlier politicians are the politicians who have less power right now, not more.