In 2008, the anti-war movement in the United States seemed to be reaching a boil, and the election of John McCain would arguably have resulted in demonstrations reminiscent of the Vietnam years. The election of Barack Obama, who ran as a cosmopolitan anti-war liberal, effectively neutralized the anti-war movement.
The anti-war movement that had developed during the Bush years and had voted overwhelmingly for Obama, was hardly heard from when troop levels were increased in Afghanistan. Liberals and progressives were willing to wait and see if Obama could turn the war into a constructive endeavor; one can imagine the reaction to increased troop levels had McCain given the order.
The question that should be on people’s minds now that Barack Obama has been re-elected to a second term is what will become of the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement.
The media and the average citizen may assume that the Tea Party platform was defeated during the election and that the Occupy Movement no longer plays a serious role in American politics. But what takes place over the next few years within these two movements, and whether or not they can unite in opposition to the corporate corruption of our democracy, will have profound implications for the future of the United States.
A little history: the Tea Party Movement emerged out of opposition to the bank bailouts, which began under Bush in 2008 and continued under Obama in 2009. The movement matured in opposition to health care reform, and repealing the Affordable Care Act has been the one goal motivating all Tea Party candidates. The Tea Party embraced every conspiracy theory offered about the president: Anti-Christ, Muslim, Kenyan, socialist, communist, anti-colonialist, and “director of death panels.”
The Tea Party is radically libertarian in its economic views and extremely nationalistic in its cultural views. It is the culmination of thirty years of Right-wing propaganda that has gradually taken root in digital and print media thanks to corporate-funded think tanks and conservative education initiatives. Many in the Tea Party exist in a self-contained universe of conservative assumptions and opinions presented as mainstream, common sense fact.
The Tea Party was largely responsible for the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 2010, and the Tea Party equation of politics with religion played out in Congress as the new members refused to “compromise” their principles.
Such obstructionism, while expected from the opposition party to some extent, went well beyond the bounds of reasonableness during the “debate” over whether or not to raise to debt ceiling. The Republicans in Congress believed that their tactics were justified because their party was on the ascent. But now that Obama has been re-elected, and more Democrats were added to both the House and the Senate, it is clear that a majority of the country does not support the Tea Party agenda.
The question to ask is whether or not the Tea Party cares.
This is a movement that equates politics with religion and embodies many anti-democratic tendencies. Much has been said since the election about what the GOP will have to do in order to appeal to the electorate, but a proper understanding of the Tea Party would indicate that they do not intend to change their beliefs, their message, or their tactics.
They are convinced that the federal government is an oppressive power that increasingly infringes on their rights. They are convinced that the Affordable Care Act is socialized health care and they are stockpiling their guns. 95,000 people in Texas signed a petition desiring to secede from the Union.
Regardless whether the Republicans in Congress begin to work with Democrats on tax reform, entitlement spending, military spending, immigration reform, or God-willing environmental reform, the Tea Party believes that the government is the enemy of their freedom and liberty. They actually view the federal government as something that must be resisted, as if it is the 21st century British monarchy passing tyrannical laws from afar without any consent from the people.
Much has been made since the election of the Hispanic vote, and the changing demographics of the country. The Tea Party sees itself as an embattled minority trying to preserve traditional values, which in their view conflict with multiculturalism, liberalism, progressivism, and even moderate libertarianism.
The Tea Party members believe that their country is being taken away from them, and the notion that they will simply stop desiring to take it back is naïve.
There are some true believers among their ranks, who will increasingly view the political process with suspicion and contempt, as an ineffective and peaceful means to achieve their goals, and who will embrace alternative methods to make their voices heard.
Elements of both the Tea Party and the Republican Party feel that “white, middle-class America” is under attack. Within the context of the culture wars, this argument has been around since the 1980s and gained momentum in the 1990s. But since the “Lost Decade” of the Bush years and the subsequent “Great Recession” of the Obama years, which conservatives fail to understand was caused by right-wing economic policies, the notion that “white, middle-class America” is a besieged minority has taken on cultural and economic undertones.
Political sermons on libertarian “limited government” have taken on fresh meaning to many people since the reality of their economic hardship has crystallized. They blame the government, that is, the Obama Administration and the Democratic Party, for the reality that the middle and working classes are being shafted, and they equate the federal government’s attempt to reform health care and rebuild the middle class through public investments as evidence that “Big Government” is taking away their money and their freedom.
Here’s the point: a large element of one of our two major political parties is convinced that government is the root of all of their social, cultural, and economic problems, and this group has the mentality of a besieged minority in possession of the “truth.” Such a group poses a threat to democracy due to their misdirected anger, which should be directed at the corporate corruption of democracy rather than the government itself, and their tendency to do the political bidding of corporate interests without being fully aware of it.
The Occupy Movement was formed largely in response to the same event as the Tea Party: the federal government’s bailout of Wall Street. The Occupy Movement understands that a government that is responsive to the people is the best security against unchecked corporate power and corporate greed. The Occupy Movement is properly concerned with the corporate corruption of democracy.
However, Occupy is equally opposed to both major parties, and has been hesitant to directly influence the legislative process. The Tea Party elects people to Congress, while the Occupy Movement embraces non-violent direct action. The question that must be asked is whether or not the Occupy Movement will begin to apply more direct pressure on the political process itself, on promoting specific pieces of legislation.
Occupy has been motivated by two fundamental principles: 1) corporations are not people, and 2) money is not speech. Occupy must decide whether or not it wants to see those principles materialized in legislation. Doing so would be one of the most profound, constructive, and promising changes in our political system.
Not only that, doing so is arguably the key to a peaceful 21st century on our continent because without a revival of civic engagement and the belief among the citizens that government is responsive to the people -- without concrete evidence that democracy can continue to work in the long-term -- elements of the left-wing are just as likely to embrace non-peaceful methods of expression as the right-wing, specifically within the context of the environmental challenges facing all of us.
The tendency for liberals and progressives may be to celebrate the fact that Obama was re-elected, that Democrats increased their numbers in both the House and the Senate, and that attempted Voter ID laws and massive increases in corporate campaign spending failed to translate into GOP victory.
Yet, the state legislatures that passed Voter ID legislation will continue to press for its implementation in the future, and corporate campaign spending will learn from this election and make strategic changes. The fear that voter suppression and corporate money would “steal” the election proved to be false, but the long-term challenges of both are still present.
Our democracy can still be gradually undermined over the next few years. The fact that Obama and the Democrats retained power does not guarantee solutions to our problems. Now is the time for liberals and progressives to organize on a scale not seen since the Bush years. Now is the time to put pressure on the Obama Administration and Congress to address our long-term domestic challenges. The Occupy Movement should lead the charge.
At the risk of angering some people who without a doubt do more to help others than myself, it seems reasonable to suggest that the Occupy Movement undergo a makeover.
The ideas of Occupy are supported by a majority of people, but the ideas are often articulated in radical terms. Furthermore, the image of Occupy is often perceived as radical from a mainstream, working and middle class cultural standpoint. How the movement is perceived matters. How people dress, and how they express themselves, wrongly or rightly, will influence how other people respond to the ideas being articulated.
We increasingly live in what cultural critics refer to as an “image-based” society, and the image of Occupy impacts the success of Occupy. Obviously, many people will angrily reject this advice and say that people shouldn’t “sell out” or conform to arbitrary middle-class social norms. But at the end of the day what matters, if you truly care about political reform, is whether or not your ideas are materialized in legislation, and whether or not they changed society.
If the ideas are what truly matter, then Occupy must present itself in a manner that will enable the ideas to be embraced by the mainstream. Some on the Left, primarily young people, have turned politics into a fashion statement. They cultivate their personal image above the real work of communicating ideas to society. They cultivate a lifestyle with politics on the side, embracing rhetoric that is self-indulgent and that does nothing to begin a dialogue with those who may disagree but are still open to new ideas.
If Occupy wants to make radical ideas acceptable to the mainstream, and consequently enable those ideas to influence legislation, they may want to dress more like Republicans once in a while. If Occupy wants to succeed, it must remember that the society it seeks to change is also the audience it must enlist.