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Mellman: Tea Party vs. Occupy Wall Street

Greg Nash

Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party followed similar trajectories. Both grew, seemingly as grassroots movements, enjoyed brief popularity and are now widely disliked by the electorate. But the two movements bequeath different legacies. 

While Tea Party power may have ebbed somewhat, there is no doubt the movement achieved real power and exerted (for the worse, in my view) real influence on national policy. Occupy Wall Street left us with little more than a piece of an idea — the 1 percent — and many Democratic politicians would rightly argue they had been using that language long before Occupy made it famous.

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Why the divergent legacies? Politics matters. 

Of course, the Tea Party had its own TV network, as well as national funding and some centralized institutional control. Fox News helped build the Tea Party, covering rallies of 20 and 30 people while almost ignoring gatherings of hundreds of thousands for progressive causes. Moreover, Fox provided its viewers with information on upcoming Tea Party events and urged viewers to participate. Financial support came from the Koch brothers, while FreedomWorks, Russo Marsh and Rogers and the Tea Party Express provided organizational muscle. 

Occupy Wall Street lacked some of those initial advantages — its media advocate was an obscure Canadian magazine called Adbusters. Yet it too generated a good deal of coverage, and ended up bringing tens of thousands of people to tents in some 600 communities.

Both movements were popular at their start, but both developed negative images. In January of 2010, 33 percent of Americans viewed the Tea Party favorably and 26 percent harbored unfavorable opinions in a CNN/ORC poll. By September, more people were unfavorable than favorable, and by the end of 2013, just 28 percent were favorable toward the Tea Party with 56 percent unfavorable, an increase of 30 points in unfavorable ratings. 

Occupy suffered a similar fate. In February 2010, 35 percent reported favorable and 22 percent unfavorable views. By October, more were unfavorable than favorable, and by March of 2012, unfavorables jumped 29 points to 51 percent, while favorables views declined to 30 percent.

Perhaps the most important difference was the choice each made about politics. The Tea Party was avowedly political. It participated in campaigns and ran its own candidates, some of whom were successful (though others were spectacular failures). But the end result was Tea Partyers in the halls of power and almost every Republican lawmaker looking worriedly over his or her right shoulders at every vote. The Tea Party had power in the sense defined by my teacher, Yale’s Robert Dahl, who died last week at 98. “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.” The Tea Party demonstrably got Republicans to do things that they would not otherwise have done. 

Occupy Wall Street moved in the opposite direction, actively eschewing politics. Its members saw no place for themselves in the electoral system and often shooed away elected officials who attempted to visit their encampments, displaying contempt for politics and politicians. As a result there were no Occupy members of Congress, nor did anyone look over their left shoulder worried about a primary threat from Occupy.

The only residue they left in the body of politics is a slogan — and it’s not a slogan they invented. Polemicists have talked about the 1 percent for centuries. Al Gore accused George Bush of supporting the “wealthiest 1 percent” several times during the 2000 presidential debates. And other Democrats regularly used the phrase, though Occupy brought it to new heights of media attention and fame. But without a base in politics, the flame fizzled. 

The more long-lasting influence of the Tea Party demonstrates that political involvement matters. Those who don’t want to get their hands dirty may remain pure, but their impact will remain limited.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.