Commentary: What the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street really have in common

A number of commentators have struggled to link the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street protestors. Both groups seem to be grassroots, spontaneous expressions of popular discontent. They appear to occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum, however, and have different takes on the cause of, and the solution for, their unhappiness.

There is one very significant difference between the two groups. And that difference helps explain the one thing they have in common that matters more than anything else. The difference is the Tea Partiers are a mob masquerading as a movement, while the Occupiers are a movement determined to act like a mob. The important thing they have in common is that, in the not-so-long-run, neither of them is going to amount to anything.

All the journalistic descriptions of their lasting impact are just the usual cycle of the media going from inattention to obsession and back to attention deficit. In the end, both movements are going to fade away and the problems that motivated them will remain.

The Tea Party is not going to matter because it displays the usual inability of conservatives to deal with the world as it is, only on steroids. They don’t like reality, don’t understand it, resist the changes it implies and ignore any evidence that clashes with how they wish things were. That makes them easy prey for politicians who promise a return to an Ozzie and Harriet world that never existed, billionaires with an agenda like the Koch brothers and hucksters like congressman turned lobbyist Dick Armey.

The Tea Partiers believe the solution to a dysfunctional government is less government, which is a bit like saying the remedy for a leaky roof is to remove the roof. They seem to think that dismantling the social safety net will allow them to prosper. They swear allegiance to the free market, without giving a thought to what is required for such a market to operate as efficiently as they think it will or to the implications of that being the only determinant of one’s fortunes.

They assert, for instance, the answer to soaring medical costs is the free market and not government intervention. At their next debate someone should ask the Republicans vying for their party’s presidential nomination how much they spent last time they went to the doctor, how much they will spend the next time and how much they would spend if their health depended on it. They will all blather on without answering those questions because none of them has any idea what the answers are.

So how is a free market supposed to operate when the consumer has no idea what the product costs and is willing to pay any amount if necessary to buy it? The consumer also has no idea about the quality of the product and what alternatives are available. To operate as efficiently as it does in theory, a free market needs many buyers, many sellers and lots of information about the product and alternatives to it. That does not describe, and never will, the market for health care. Not to mention the problem of ignoring the moral considerations of having a society where wealth determines health.

Nonetheless the Tea Partiers will vote for politicians who promise the myth of the free market as the solution to their problems. By being visible and turning out for the last election, the Tea Party did manage to put in office a number of freshmen congressmen who pay lip service to their beliefs. Those politicians will either be captured by the system, and just as beholden to the special interests as the rest of Washington, or they will be irrelevant naysayers who have no effect on the way government operates. So the Tea Party will, thankfully, not have any lasting impact — other than perhaps to help the Republican Party nominate one of their least electable candidates for president.

The Occupy Everywhere crowd is also eventually going to be equally disappointed with their inability to bring about change. They refuse to have leaders, agendas or proposals, other than for the top one percent to be more generous with the bottom 99 percent.

Fat chance. If Ronald Reagan accomplished anything it was to make greed a virtue and government a vice in the eyes of many. The rich think they have earned their status and will never believe they have too much or even enough. They don’t believe in any government program that redistributes income. Occupying the public square and only using shame to bring about change is not going to work. It would be like going to Las Vegas and demonstrating in favor of good taste, moderation and the arts. A few laughs will be the only result.

What really would bring about change? Now, thanks to the right wing majority on the Supreme Court, corporations are entitled to unlimited, anonymous free speech in the form of attack ads against any politician who dares stand against them and for the people. Limiting the influence of money in Washington, public financing of elections, total transparency about who is trying to affect public policy and congressional districts not drawn to ensure the victory of one party or the other are all essential steps if real change is to ever happen.

While those steps are a good start there also must be a rejection of Reagan’s simplistic rewriting of our civic values. Government doesn’t do anything well, but that does not mean the free market can always do better. There is a role for government and the taxes paid to support it are the price we pay for living in a fair, just and safe society. That realization will bring about change a lot quicker than quixotic movements or delusional mobs.


Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador to Mozambique and Peru, is a professor of international affairs at Penn State's School of International Affairs.

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.