Occupy Wall Street Should Learn from Tea Party's Success

It seems that the media is finally starting to notice the thousands protesting in New York as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, albeit in a variety of ways. The continuum spans from MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell's calling out the NYPD's inexcusable police brutality to Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly's claim that the only reason that protestors are “jobless” is “because they don’t want to work.”

The message from Occupy Wall Street, much like the message from the media, has been disjointed at best. Although the self-organized “General Assembly” has released a list of grievances, the end-goal of what the movement actually wants to accomplish is vaguer than ever.

However, the main problem with the initial movement isn’t necessarily the lack of a coherent message or set of goals. It’s the misdirection of their ire.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that yelling at JPMorgan and Bank of America for real or perceived injustices is cathartic, but what does it change? Like it or not, the levers that move our government are located in Washington, and if you want to enact change, you need to work within the system.

Take the Tea Party as an example. The original elements of the Tea Party were formed in 2007 and 2008 in the lead-up to the TARP bank bailouts and in support of libertarian Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. Most people don’t know that this is the origin of the movement, and for good reason — they received little to no attention and accomplished a whole lot of nothing.

However, big business and established conservative political outfits saw potential. Seeing the elements and foundations of a popular anti-government movement, moneyed interests started assisting those voices that spoke to prioritizing elections over fiscal policy. This influx of money, experience and expertise, combined with the focus on electoral politics, led to the 2010 uprising that resulted in Republicans' retaking the House and gaining ground in the Senate.

Now look at the Tea Party today. Despite being a fringe minority in Congress, the frenzied primary threats from the voting base have hundreds of congressional Republicans too scared to open their mouths to say anything other than “more tax cuts” or “balanced budget amendment.” All of this comes as a result of laser-focusing on election outcomes rather than messaging orthodoxy. Tea Partiers still span the spectrum from hardcore libertarians to fundamentalist social conservatives. Rather than hamstring them, this ideological dissonance has been leveraged into a zealous obsession with election results. Every misstep by an elected official brings immediate primary threats, even against established Republican leadership.

While I have no qualms about decrying this “governance by the fringe” as undemocratic and inevitably disastrous, one cannot argue its effectiveness. This tiny minority of Americans has, in the span of less than two years, shifted American politics so hard to the right that the Democratic president is now ideologically on par with Ronald Reagan (and still being called a “socialist”).

The lesson to learn from the success of the Tea Party is that electoral pressure works. In fact, it is the only thing that works. Forcing politicians to fight for their survival by calling them to task on their voting record is a sure-fire way to flex some citizen muscle. True, the Tea Party was bankrolled by the very interests that Occupy Wall Street is protesting, but the rise of social conservative dominance within the Tea Party movement is a perfect example of collateral effects that arise from serious electoral sway.

The folks at Occupy Wall Street would do well to learn from the Tea Party’s experience and seek to pronounce their discontent towards Washington, not Wall Street. Their fear of being co-opted by political organizations that could fund their message is misplaced. This isn’t going to stay a drum circle for much longer. If Occupy Wall Street wants to make any kind of social progress or political in-roads, they need to turn to the establishment and start playing politics. Failure to do so will result in the movement's dissipating while Tea Party activists and their bank-rollers continue to gain political ground.

Photo Credit: Adam Prime