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Surely You Jest ...

A Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street Alliance?

by ANTHONY DiMAGGIO

Many are thinking about the Tea Party and its relationship (or lack thereof) with Occupy Wall Street.  I’ve received numerous complaints from some liberals who seem set on fostering an alliance between both forces in terms of what they promise will be a mass campaign to reign in business and government corruption.  The proposal is absurd in my estimation, primarily because the groups’ goals are so antithetical that cooperation becomes not only implausible, but counter-productive.  OWS is the negative of the Tea Party – its’ exact opposite when it comes to ideology and policy attitudes.  Whereas the Tea Party nearly exclusively blames Democrats and “big government” for today’s problems, OWS refocuses attention on our problems as bi-partisan and heavily driven by Wall Street greed and corruption.  This basic reality has become obscured in liberal activists’ rhetoric and in media propaganda.

How do we know that a Tea Party and OWS alliance is counter-productive?  The conclusion flows naturally from a close examination of both groups.  Observing the Tea Party for a year as part of my research, and having participated in the OWS movement this fall, I can say from firsthand experience that there is an ideological chasm between the two.  But don’t take my word for it; a review of the policy attitudes and ideological orientations of both groups demonstrates this point pretty clearly.  With regard to the Tea Party, its’ ideological outlook and worldview can be effectively summarized by reviewing the positions that supporters take.  Demographically, the Tea Party is heavily representative of the same Republican-right that’s driven Americans politics for the last decade.  About three-quarters of Tea Partiers explain that they are Republican or lean Republican in their party attachments.  Polling from Bloomberg finds that Tea Partiers are representative of the far right of the Republican Party, labeling them “super-Republicans” in orientation.  A closer look explains why this label is apt.  As Bloomberg finds, 80 percent of Tea Partiers support the Republican “Pledge to America,” the party’s ideological platform, which is largely a blueprint for further institutionalizing corporate power, minimizing popular social welfare programs, further cutting taxes for the wealthy, and strengthening U.S. militarism and aggression.

Tea Partiers appear to be under the impression that, if we could simply return Republicans to power and further their policy platform, we could guarantee renewed economic development and vitality.  For example, Bloomberg polling finds that 85 percent of Tea Partiers believe that “the economy will improve with Republicans in control of Congress.”  Eighty percent of Tea Partiers have acted on that feeling, as they explained prior to the 2010 elections that they planned on voting for Republican candidates.

Most Tea Partiers refuse to place any blame on Republicans or Wall Street for the destructive economic behavior and greed that sunk the American economy three short years ago.  When asked in a 2010 CBS-New York Times survey, just 5 percent of Tea Partiers said Bush was “most to blame for the current state of the economy,” while just 15 percent placed blame on Wall Street.  In contrast, a plurality (28 percent) blamed a Democratically controlled Congress – conveniently exonerating Republicans and business investors for the disastrous behavior that led to the housing and derivatives bubbles.   When asked if they support building an alternative party system outside that of the dominant Democratic-Republican Party system, a majority (52%) oppose forming “a third party to compete with the major parties.”

Tea Partiers are strongly partial to right-wing demagoguery and are significantly racist in their attitudes.  Most (according to a 2010 University of Washington poll) disagree that blacks are hardworking or intelligent.  Most either believe that Obama is not a citizen or can’t be sure that he was really born in the U.S.  Most also retain favorable views of right wing extremists such as Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, and most share a positive impression of former President George W. Bush.

One needs to look closely at Tea Partiers policy attitudes to understand how out of touch they are with the rest of Americans and with OWS.  As Bloomberg polling finds, 80 percent of Tea Partiers wish to repeal Democratic health care reform, despite the benefits contained in the legislation for the poor (as seen in expansion of Medicaid).  Tea Partiers might have posed legitimate challenges to “Obamacare” as a massive corporate welfare subsidy for the for-profit health care industry.  Instead, the anger was almost exclusively directed against the bill as a case of “socialism” and “government takeover,” despite the fact that Democratic health care reform represented a escalating market takeover of health care (CBS-New York Times polling from 2010 found that most Tea Partiers attacked Obama during the time of the health care reform debate for being an alleged socialist).

Most Tea Partiers appear to support a gutting of Medicare and Social Security.  True, most said that both programs are “worth” the cost, as found in the 2010 CBS-New York Times survey.  This attitude is belied, however, upon closer inspection.  As Bloomberg polling revealed: 53 percent of Tea Partiers supported benefit reductions as of late 2010, while 53 percent wanted to raise the age for eligibility for Medicare benefits, and 58 percent supported raising the age for Social Security beneficiaries.  Recent polling, however, suggests that most Tea Partiers have reconsidered these positions, and now oppose Medicare cuts, although a majority (53% according to the 2010 Bloomberg poll) went on record supporting the privatization of both Social Security and Medicare.   Whether support for privatization has changed since 2010 is unclear.  Whether Tea Partiers have discovered a renewed personal commitment to Medicare and Social Security is irrelevant, however, in light of their continued support for a Republican Party dead-set on dismantling those programs.

Tea Partiers continue to support the Republican plan for devastating social spending in the name of tax cuts for the rich.  Aside from their support for the assault on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, two-thirds of Tea Partiers (according to Bloomberg) support cutting spending on roads and bridges.  Sixty-three percent approve of cutting research funds for studying Alzheimer’s and other diseases.  Most want to continue the Bush era tax cuts, which went overwhelmingly to the richest one to 20 percent of Americans.  Most support deficit reduction via social spending cuts as a way to pay for extending the Bush tax cuts.

The above Tea Party attitudes, when taken as a whole, demonstrate how utterly reactionary the Tea Party is when compared to the rest of the public.  Compare these numbers to those revealed in recent OWS surveys and one begins to see the gargantuan chasm that exists between the two groups.  In terms of ideology and partisanship, OWS supporters are far less attached to Democrats, when compared to how closely Tea Partiers are tied to the Republican Party.  A Fordham University Press-affiliated poll finds that 60 percent of OWS supporters reported voting for Obama in 2008.  That initial support had largely vaporized by the last year, however.  The same survey finds that just 36 percent of OWS supporters plan on voting for Obama in 2012; 36% plan on voting for “some other” candidate, while 25% don’t plan on voting at all.  Seventy-two percent of OWS supporters claim to be either liberal or extremely liberal, and it is their commitment to left-wing politics that makes them so disillusioned with the increasingly center-right, calculating, and corporatist Obama administration.  As the Fordham survey found, 73% of OWS supporters disapprove of Obama.  More generally, just 42 percent plan on voting Democratic in 2012, compared to 80 percent of Tea Partiers who planned to vote Republican in 2010.  Twenty-two percent of OWS protestors say they will not be voting, whereas 32% say they will be voting for “someone else” other than for Democrats.

OWS protestors are much more independent than Tea Partiers.  Their policy positions suggest as much.  As shown in a recent Benedictine University survey of OWS, 75 percent criticize the Obama administration’s policies as unduly “favor[ing] the rich.”  Similarly, 84 percent approve of raising taxes on those who make more than $250,000 a year, despite Democrats’ willingness to surrender on this demand last year.  According to a survey in the Wall Street Journal, the plurality of OWS supporters feel that the influence of “corporate/moneyed/special interests” represents the most frustrating part of the U.S. “political process.”  The Wall Street Journal survey also finds that 65 percent of OWS protestors agree that government shares a “moral responsibility to guarantee all citizens access to affordable health care, a college education, and a secure retirement.”

Democrats would no doubt brag that they’ve made significant progress in terms of making health care more affordable, but there’s little doubt that the Democrats have refused to even prioritize efforts to make education more affordable and providing for secure retirement.  This much has been made clear over the last decade, as tuition rates in higher education have skyrocketed, student-related debt has grown dramatically, and Democrats have spearheaded the effort to promote significant cuts to Social Security and Medicare spending.  OWS supporters, unlike Tea Partiers, recognize these deficiencies in the Democratic Party.  Whereas a strong majority of OWS’ers disapprove of Obama and feel he is in the pocket of the rich and Wall Street, Tea Partiers embrace right-wing paranoia and propaganda that condemns Obama as a closet Muslim, Kenyan, Socialist.  Revealingly, 77% of Tea Partiers think Obama is “very liberal”; 64 percent incorrectly believe he has increased their taxes, while 92% are under the fallacious assumption that Obama’s policies “are moving the country toward socialism” (see the 2010 CBS-New York Times Tea Party survey).

Are there any prospects for an alliance between the libertarian segment of the Tea Party and OWS?  At first glance, this possibility appears quite encouraging.  When asked “whom do you want to be the Republican nominee for President,” a plurality of OWS supporters mention Ron Paul – the leading libertarian figure in the Tea Party.  Ron Paul certainly has offered numerous thoughtful policy positions in which those on the left should work to address.  His distrust of the unaccountable Federal Reserve is understandable; his condemnations of U.S. imperialism and saber rattling against Iran is on point.

The main problem with regard to a Tea Party-OWS alliance, however, is that the Paulite segment of the Tea Party represents a long neglected and small minority of all Tea Partiers.  Simply stated, there just aren’t that many libertarian Tea Partiers, compared to mainline Tea Party types.  Strong majorities of Tea Party adherents are essentially Bush dead-enders, as suggested by their support for the Republican Party and its draconian attacks on the welfare state, and in the destructive embrace of neoliberal deregulation of Wall Street.

OWS supporters are aware of the dramatic differences between themselves and Tea Partiers.  Seventy-five percent of OWS protestors have an unfavorable view of the Tea Party (as seen in the Fordham survey).  The OWS crowd wants to see government play a positive and active role in expanding the public good.  OWS’ers understand that the largest problems confronting the country today are the economy, jobs, and Wall Street corruption, and they’d like government to be more active in addressing these problems.  Contrast this with the Tea Party, in which most think that reducing the federal budget deficit should be the most important goal of the government (see the 2010 Bloomberg poll).

Rank and file Tea Partiers do share some views that seem progressive at first glance.  Bloomberg found that 63 percent feel the bank bailout “has made the economy weaker” and nearly 70 percent feel “they would be less likely to support a candidate who voted for the bank rescue or the auto bailout.”  The problem with these views is that Tea Party anger is directed only at Democrats in government, while excluding from blame the Republican Party and Wall Street.  All three groups were instrumental in orchestrating the bailouts, despite Tea Partiers seeming ignorance of this fact.  So long as Tea Partiers exonerate the primary culprits for the neoliberal era and its accompanying bailouts, there will be little possibility of “working with” the group.  Serious solutions to America’s problems require serious, competent analyses of the problems at hand.  We don’t need blatantly partisan scapegoating, propaganda, or whitewashing of conservative greed.

Anthony DiMaggio is the author of numerous books, The Rise of the Tea Party, due out in November 2011 from Monthly Review Press, and  other works such as Crashing the Tea Party (2011); When Media Goes to War (2010); and Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008).  He has taught American politics and International Relations in Political Science at a number of colleges and universities, and can be reached at: adimag2@uic.edu