Occupy Wall Street vs The Tea Parties

by A. Jay Adler on October 10, 2011
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There is enough oversimplification in MSM political commentary about American political movements and tendencies – their origins, motives, and acts – to swirl perpetually down a drain of ignorance, but I don’t have quite that much time today. The opposition of the title above is certainly a current, favored topic of pundits. As it is, the standard reference to a singular Tea Party is the beginning of misinformation by simplification.

Another misconceived notion is that the Tea Parties were a response to federal financial profligacy. Yes, the mushrooming national debt and the huge bailout and stimulus sums were an immediate provocation of Tea Party activism, but now that the initial TP fervor has passed, GOP policy initiatives and practice, in the states, too, has clearly revealed the true, unsurprising ideology behind the movement: traditional, extreme anti-federalism (in times of debt and crisis or not)  and the decades-old culture war.

Suggesting any commonality among OWS and the TPs is like singing the fraternity of bananas and lemons because they’re both some shade of yellow.

In typical pundit misapprehension, Matt Dowd, on yesterday’s This Week argued, of OWS,

I think the Republicans are making a huge mistake on this, because I think if I were a Republican candidate or advising a Republican candidate today, I would say adopt this populist movement. Because right now, I think the Republican Party has forgotten who their base is. The Republican Party’s base is not Wall Street. The Republican Party’s base is a middle-class, small-town, rural vote out there.

This would be a less quaint thing for Dowd to say in 1956 or even 1980, but in that last sentence his own one word reveals his error: “vote.” The Republican Party’s voting base is  the middle-class, small-town, rural American. The GOP’s interest base is corporate America and Wall Street. So understood, of course, there is no commonality at all between OWS and the TPs.

It is true that an originating and still driving force behind OWS are Utopian anarchist tendencies. Their anti-government beliefs offer another hue of surface commonality with the TPs. While even on those simple terms, they could hardly be more different, the activating energies and political visions of the OWS core are more varied than just anarchism. You see, for instance, in the OWS touting of its New York “general assembly” a representation of post 60s bottom up “empowerment” politics, in contrast to establishment “power” politics. However, empowerment politics doesn’t eliminate the belief in the power of government and the good of communal action – it just seeks to activate that collective differently, by envisioning it even more ideally than the abstract government “by the people” conservatives already reject.

The same This Week gave us Daily Kos blogger Jesse LaGreca as an OWS spokesman, on a remote feed from New York, to join the “round-table.” This had its own quaintness to it, as if Laurence Spivak on a 1967 Meet the Press had beamed in a hippie from the Haight to try to find out what it is “these young people” want. (“These Be-ins – what are they? What are young people trying to tell us?”) LaGreca is not an anarchist, and George Will thought he’d found some sort of ideological contradiction in OWS.

Mr. LaGreca, I hear a certain dissonance in your message. Your message is, Washington is corrupt, Washington is the handmaiden of the powerful. A lot of conservatives agree with that. But then you say this corrupt Washington that’s the handmaiden of the powerful should be much more powerful in regulating our lives. Why do you want a corrupt government bigger in our lives?

LaGreca smiled knowingly at this, as he had cause to more than once – the MSM is nothing without its old shoe boxes. His response was not his best moment, though he was pretty good overall and he’ll get better if he does more. My interest is in Will’s question and what it reveals about an essential thinking error in current conservative ideology.

One defense of antifederalism is simply, profoundly temperamental: live and let live and don’t tread on me. The other current, more commonly articulated defense is the corruption of government, in support of which conservatives will line up all the ills and errors with which the government can be charged. But there is a form of fundamental slippery slope – and self-contradictory – argument in the ideology grounded in such a case. Conservatives themselves like to rail against what they decry as left moral relativism. To the extent that they describe a real phenomenon, it, too, is grounded in that same slippery slopism.

Moral, cultural, and varied forms of postmodern relativism originate in the distance between perfection - any conception of an absolute – and reality. That distance, like the first slippery step down a slope, becomes the basis for arguing a slope so slippery that it doesn’t even exist: we are down to the bottom so quick it’s hard to argue the difference between the base and the top. A written text can be analyzed to extract from it contradictory meanings – why, then, it has no stable meaning at all. Differing moral beliefs are found to be held with equal degrees of absoluteness in different cultures and times – why, then, there are not absolute moral values at all. Government, like people and all human endeavor, is found to be imperfect, riddled with all the sins of the human beings who make it up – why, then, government, and all institutionalized collective action for the common weal is an illusion.

Conservatives cannot reasonably hold this last belief, if they do not maintain the logic of the first two. That is, unless there are other factors influencing their anti-government passions, which of course there are. The very great imperfections of government are just the handy stones, chipped from blocks with which we construct the edifice of our common purpose, wielded by those who will not countenance the idea of a common purpose.

After This Week, I traveled to Zuccotti Park and observed the Occupy Wall Street protest, nothing of which causes me to alter the thoughts I expressed here. I shot these photos with my Motorola Xoom, This last, of the new, One World Trade Center, under construction, is only a block away.

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