matt pearce.

matt pearce.

National reporter for the Los Angeles Times; essays, journalism and poetry previously for the L.A. Review of Books, The New Inquiry, The Missouri Review, Salon, and others.

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IS OCCUPY WALL STREET THE NEW TEA PARTY?

(from We Are The 99 Percent)

Right now, we’re at a weird moment where the Occupy Wall Street protests seem poised to become an honest-to-god political movement and will start to be treated as such. I’m a journalist, so I notice this mostly through how the media behaves. Coverage has slowly gotten less derisive and more thoughtful as the protests make that mystical move from Fringe-y to Legitimate, a process inevitably helped along when journalists start projecting their own views onto what a pretty messy movement is actually “about.” Case in point, Ezra Klein:

…this is why I’m taking Occupy Wall Street — or, perhaps more specifically, the ‘We Are The 99 Percent’ movement — seriously. There are a lot of people who are getting an unusually raw deal right now. There is a small group of people who are getting an unusually good deal right now. That doesn’t sound to me like a stable equilibrium.

The organizers of Occupy Wall Street are fighting to upend the system. But what gives their movement the potential for power and potency is the masses who just want the system to work the way they were promised it would work. It’s not that 99 percent of Americans are really struggling. It’s not that 99 percent of Americans want a revolution. It’s that 99 percent of Americans sense that the fundamental bargain of our economy — work hard, play by the rules, get ahead — has been broken, and they want to see it restored.

Is this journalism? Or is this Ezra Klein telling protesters: “No, you’re not anarchists or socialists. You’re *actually* concerned about social contracts.” Blank canvas, meet moderate projection. But perhaps this is how movements are forged, with intellectual elites like Ezra Klein helping guide a social movement toward popular respectability.

The other day I tweeted that “Occupy Wall Street reminds me of the Tea Party: A band of people unified by outrage and not much else.” It’s informative here to look back at how the Tea Party also began: Fringe-y, disorganized, hard to pin down, derided. Sound familiar? The Economist’s Matt Steinglass has a word of caution to the Occupy doubters by recalling the Tea Party’s rise:

The invocation of a new Tea Party seemed like a slogan pitched to eighth graders working through the American history year in their junior-high curriculum. And, as tea-party rhetoric caught on and spread around the country, many of the things said and done under its rubric were…well, not very intelligent or attractive. People with very limited or idiosyncratic fringe understandings of the financial system were making passionate pitches to abolish the Federal Reserve. It seemed hard to imagine how those people could find common cause with the Wall Street traders who initially cheered Mr Santelli. And that’s not even taking into account the birthers, or the get-your-government-hands-off-my-Medicare folks. How could these people seriously hope to get anything accomplished?

As it turns out, they did. You don’t necessarily know, at the beginning of a movement that generates a lot of spontaneous grassroots energy, which direction it’s going to go, who’s going to get involved, or what its lasting effects will be. The various tea-party organisations have pulled plenty of silly stunts over the past two years, but they have also shifted the right wing of Congress dramatically to the right, virtually paralysing the country’s legislature. Whatever ineffectual and indeed offensive, anti-intellectual nuttiness the tea-party movement embraced, it also effectively focused the political attention of dissatisfied conservatives on the spectre of government action, creating a space where all sorts of different actors could intervene and grow.

It’s obviously way too early to declare Occupy Wall Street as the blue-hued reincarnation of the Tea Party. But legitimacy is slowly arriving. Some unions are starting to throw their memberships behind the cause, as well as two Democratic U.S. representatives who have now lent their imprimatur while party leadership hangs back to get a better read on the ball. As Dave Weigel notes, “It’s tempting to compare this to the Tea Party, which a few Republicans (Bachmann, Gohmert, Gingrich) embraced right away, as leading Republican candidates hedged on whether to attach their names to it.”

Like Steinglass, I don’t really consider myself to be some kind of social-movement wizard who could say whether Occupy Wall Street will turn into anything — or whether Obama will yoke it for his re-election chances, or whether it will instead yank him to the left. But unless you’re heartless, you can’t read ‘We Are The 99 Percent’ tumblr and not be a little moved. (My bias: My generation, when it comes to the need for a degree and the ensuing unemployment/student debt, seems to have been tricked into a playing game it can’t win.) What are the solutions? I have no idea. And I’m not sure a lot of other people know the answer either. But I’m guessing most meaningful movements begin with people asking questions very loudly.