Why Occupy Wall Street is not the Tea Party of the Left
The atmosphere at this Occupy Wall Street protest in Denver was "electric with frustration," says iReporter Dylan Maxberry.
October 10th, 2011
11:40 PM ET

Why Occupy Wall Street is not the Tea Party of the Left

Editor's Note: Sidney Tarrow is Emeritus Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Government at Cornell University. He is the author of several books, including The New Transnational Activism and Contentious Politics.

By Sidney Tarrow, Foreign Affairs

"There's a difference between an emotional outcry and a movement," former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young said recently of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. "This is an emotional outcry," he explained. "The difference is organization and articulation." Young knows something about social movements: as a young pastor in the South he joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was jailed for participating in demonstrations in Alabama and Florida. But his suggestion that what is happening today in lower Manhattan lacks real momentum rings false - the civil rights movement is not a precedent one can use to understand Occupy Wall Street. Neither is this movement a Tea Party of the left, as some observers have suggested. Occupy Wall Street is a movement of a completely new type.

Both the civil rights movement and the Tea Party were created to serve specific constituencies - in the first case, African Americans suffering under the burden of Jim Crow in the South; in the second, older, white, middle-class Americans who saw themselves victims of an overweening Federal government. "This is about the people who work hard to bring home the bacon and want to keep it", one Tea Party group declared. In contrast, Occupy Wall Street puts forward few policy proposals and has a shifting configuration of supporters as it spreads across the country. The closest its activists have come to issuing a clear statement of aims was in the "Declaration of the Occupation of New York City," posted on September 30th. "As one people, united," the declaration proclaimed, "we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors." That is hardly a policy platform. But policy platforms are not the point of this new kind of movement.

Charles Tilly, the late Columbia sociologist, divided movements into three types, based on the policies they demand, the constituencies they claim to represent, or the identities they are trying to construct. Both the civil rights movement and the Tea Party combined the first and second goals. Occupy Wall Street is what we might call a "We are here" movement. Asking its activists "What do you want?" as some pundits have demanded, is beside the point. Participants are neither disillusioned Obama supporters, nor or a "mob," as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor cynically named them. By their presence they are saying only, "Recognize us!"

Read: The fight for real democracy at the heart of Occupy Wall Street.

If Occupy Wall Street resembles any movement in recent American history, it would actually be the so-called new women's movement of the 1970s. When that struggle emerged in the wake of the civil rights movement, it shocked conservatives and befuddled liberals. The first saw the activists as a bunch of bra-burning anarchists; the second considered them unladylike, or, well-meaning liberals gone off the reservation. Although the leaders of the new women's movement had policies they wanted on the agenda, their foremost demand was for recognition of, and credit for, the gendered reality of everyday life. Likewise, when the Occupy Wall Street activists attack Wall Street, it is not capitalism as such they are targeting, but a system of economic relations that has lost its way and failed to serve the public.

Periodically, thousands of Americans from no single social class or region, and with no explicit goal, come together in what Cornell political theorist Jason Frank has called a "constituent moment."Likewise, Yale constitutional theorist Bruce Ackerman names three such moments in American history: the most recent was during the Great Depression, when hardship and outrage came together in a wave of strikes and demonstrations, some of them far more "mob"-like than Occupy Wall Street. They had no specific policy agenda, but they demanded recognition and radical change in the relations between government, the people, and corporations.

Read: How Occupy Wall Street works.

The parallels between the 1930s and today are striking. The economy has plunged to historic levels of unemployment and hardship. The economic crisis again is global, forces of obscurantism and reaction are afoot (think of the anti-immigrant legislation recently passed in Arizona and Alabama), and policymakers are demanding savage spending reductions. The Supreme Court, which, in the 1930s, was unaware that the judicial doctrines of the 19th century were hopelessly inadequate for the economic problems of the early 20th, today has returned to a doctrine of "originalism" that seeks to go even further back, now to the 18th century.

But the energy gathering behind Occupy Wall Street may very well not bring on another New Deal. Perhaps no "constituent moment" will result from it. During the depression, unemployment topped 25 percent - today it is 9.1 percent. Then, the United States had a president, Franklin Roosevelt, who said of the plutocrats who opposed his policies and hated him personally: "I welcome their hatred!" Like the Wall Street protesters today, he spoke of "government by organized money" and of the "forces of selfishness and lust for power." The response was electric, and Roosevelt was re-elected by an even greater majority than in the previous election. The difference this time is that the White House and the Democratic Party offer no leadership to the inchoate anger that Occupy Wall Street reflects. In his press conference last week, after acknowledging that he understands the anger of the protesters, U.S. President Barack Obama was quick to assure the financial sector of his continuing support.

Read: Inequality and American decline.

"We are here" movements often flare up rapidly and just as quickly fade away, or disintegrate into rivulets of particular claims and interests. Others, like the new women's movement, eventually coalesce into a few organized sectors, each with its own set of policy demands and political identities. It is too soon to tell which of these will be the fate of Occupy Wall Street. But one thing is certain: we are seeing a wake-up call to a complacent corporate sector and its Washington enablers that there is a new force demanding change at the grassroots of American society.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Sidney Tarrow.

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Topics: Economy • Protests • United States

soundoff (184 Responses)
  1. Teamchaos

    ACORN and Obama are a huge part of the cause of the banks troubles.
    History facts: jimmy Carter signed in the Community reinvestment act in 1977, not much was ever done about it until 2005 when acorn and obama filed claims against the banks for redlining loans, so the law went in to real effect.

    this is why banks didn't want to finance high risk loans, all of a sudden loan qualifications didn't matter much, no proof of income, no real credit checks, no real money down, if the banks didn't follow the rules then they would be restricted in business ie new branches, mergers and many other things. this is all fact look it up

    October 12, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Reply
    • AngryCenter

      Teamchaos is another victim of believing in a fallacy that keeps being passed as truth. If the reason for the collapse was that simple, why would there be so many books out there explaining how and why the crisis happen? Seriously...grow a brain cell.

      CRD has been helping Americans with home ownership since it was formed. The sub-prime market was NOT only targetted to poor people. Jumbo loans were taken out by upper-middle and high-income people; and they are not under CRD. 3/4 of the sub-prime loans were issued by bank affiliates and mortgage companies who are NOT subject to reaching any CRD requirements.

      The entire banking industry did not need the bailout just because of the sub-prime loans. They needed it because of the credit default swaps that were used as collateral hedges to these loans. These swaps were issued and bought/sold by the banks. The creditors that backed these swaps didn't have the money to actually cover them, so not only the creditors are screwed, but also the entire banking industry that depended them to be covered. Swaps were never part of any regulations because Senator Phil Gramm made sure of that when he was serving under Bush.

      Once the banks realized they have no money from these swaps, their reserve capital went up in smoke. They literally cannot operate. And if they can't operate, then this means any business that need cashflow from banks cannot depend on them. Businesses need credit in order to stay in business. If credit seizes up, then the business will fail. So now, businesses are in danger of failing as well.

      This is why the government HAD to step in with loans to the banks. The bailouts were in the form of loans. i.e. it is a credit ... a source of cashflow. Just like businesses need credit from banks, the banks now need credit from somewhere. If the govt hadn't done that, the entire economy would just seize. We would've gone into a huge depression.

      October 14, 2011 at 10:57 am | Reply
  2. OccupyBoston Supporter

    Obama, Democrats, Republicans, Independents – it doesn't matter the party. This is why this movement is different than the Tea Party. Because its supporters are all of the above. This is a movement by and for MIDDLE CLASS Americans.

    A movement supported by all of us who are tired of news like these – and I do believe it is the 99% even though some of the 99% don't even know they are supporters.


    The “reduction in workforce” telegraphed by HP a few weeks ago appears to finally be taking place.... (500) jobs are reportedly moving to Shanghai and Yehud, Israel....

    HP CEO has received a severance package worth $13.2 million in cash and stock for his 11-month tenure

    October 12, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Reply
    • OccupyBoston Supporter


      October 12, 2011 at 11:11 pm | Reply
      • Divemaster427

        Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

        October 13, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  3. Hunter

    It may go either way actually, depends on who runs the show.

    October 13, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Reply
  4. WE Party Mentor

    WE are not the Tea Party to the left! WE are the WE Party acting with character and doing what’s right.

    October 15, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Reply
  5. WE Party Mentor

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    I am inviting you to add this PicBadge to your profile picture on Facebook or Twitter.

    United for Global Change – (WE Party Mentors) http://www.wepartymentors.info

    951 cities – 82 countries – Together WE can make a difference! http://www.aunitedworld.net/ocs – http://www.aunitedworld.net/99

    October 15, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Reply
  6. Hamdy

    For the Occupy Wall Streeters: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MpyvJutkrTE

    October 18, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Reply
  7. Hamdy

    For the Occupy Wall Streeters:


    October 18, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Reply
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