Real Populism vs. Corporate PR

There is one not so obvious or immediately noticeable difference between the Occupy Wall Street protests and your average Tea Party protest. Sure, the crowds seem to be younger, signs featuring Obama as Hitler are entirely absent, and there aren't many people who are dressed like Uncle Sam sneezed stars and stripes all over them. There are no guns or demands to see the president's birth certificate. But the less obvious difference is in buses. While the Tea Party protests always feature big buses covered with flags and eagles, buses at the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations are used to haul the protesters to jail.

I bring this up because teapartiers like to pretend they're running their own show. That their protests are grassroots and their organizations are of their own construction. But those buses carting them around from protest to protest didn't just appear out of nowhere. Someone paid for them, someone gave them their ultra-patriotic paint jobs, someone's buying all the gas. All that takes funding and, as much as the 'baggers like to pretend they're an independent movement, they're all bought and paid for -- and then moved from square to square like pawns on a chessboard.

On the other hand, Greg Sargent has this to say about the Wall Street protests:

...If there's one thing that's growing clearer by the hour, it's that this is an entirely organic effort, one that's about nobody but the protestors themselves. In this sense, we're seeing a replay of the Wisconsin protests. Those ended up falling just short of what activists had hoped to achieve, but their months-long showing was still important -- it demonstrated that left wing populism is still alive and well and sent an important message about the mood of the country. The key was that it grew organically with little to no involvement from Beltway Dems and the White House.

If anything, Occupy Wall Street's lack of outside encouragement from bigfoot Dems has been a strength, rather than a weakness. As major progressive groups debate how they can contribute to strengthening the movement -- and how to give it specific direction and a specific agenda -- the need to preserve its grassroots nature will remain paramount. Who knows where this will end up, but for now, this is another reminder that the Tea Party isn't the only voice of popular discontentment over the economy. We don't necessarily live in Tea Party Nation, after all.

In fact, Lee Fang at ThinkProgress makes an excellent case that the Occupy Wall Street protesters have more in common with the original Boston Tea Partiers than the Tea Party "movement" ever will. "In the late 18th century, the British government became deeply entwined with the interests of the East India Trading Company, a massive conglomerate that counted British aristocracy as shareholders," he writes. "Americans, upset with a government that used the colonies to enrich the East India Trading Company, donned Native American costumes and boarded the ships belonging to the company and destroyed the company's tea. In the last two weeks, as protesters have gathered from New York to Los Angeles to protest corporate domination over American politics, a true Tea Party movement may be brewing."

And if the Wisconsin protests are any indication, the Democratic Party may wind up being dragged to the left by this. Right now, the party is bogged down in a hopeless quagmire of centrism and compromise -- with the left doing all the compromising. If the Tea Party dragged the nation rightward toward craziness, an actual populist movement may drag it leftward back toward sanity.

But what of the supposedly unfocused nature of Occupy Wall Street -- the lack of a unifying message? I'll answer that question with a question; what was the unifying message of the early Tea Party protests? Was it "Show me the birth certificate," "Don't take my guns," "Let's all hate Muslims/gays/abortion," "Get your big government hands off my Medicare," "We're against communism," or "Obama is Hitler?" It wasn't until later that pundits and politicians divined "they're against government spending" out of all that mishmash -- and then because it served their interests. The very absolute core message of the Tea Party was -- and remains -- "We don't like Democrats and we're unhappy Obama won."

Occupy Wall Street's core message is "corporations are screwing us and we don't like it." No Koch brother's going to paint up a bunch of buses to help deliver that complaint. Occupy Wall Street is all homegrown and, as we said here in Wisconsin during the labor protests, this is what democracy looks like.

Tea Party events are what corporate sponsorship looks like.


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