13 October 2011

What does a left-wing Tea Party look like?

As I write, the influence of the Occupy Wall Street movement is spreading toward middle America. This weekend, my old home town of Troy, NY will see an occupation-inspired "People's Mic" event for the airing of grievances in the city's Freedom Square -- a lot opened by the demolition of a church. One day later, Albany will see the "third general assembly" in as many weekends of its own occupation movement. This outbreak of emulation encourages the perception that the occupations -- whether participants actually "occupy" anything or not -- are the long-awaited left-wing counterpart to the Tea Party outbreak of 2009. A few dissenting voices -- my frequent correspondent d. eris of Poli-Tea is one -- warn against labelling the new movement in a way that only reinforces the prevailing polarization of public opinion, but the general assumption is that, politically and culturally, the occupations are phenomena of the "left."

In a guest blog for the Christian Science Monitor, erstwhile Clintonite Robert Reich questions what it would mean for a movement to be "the Left's Tea Party," and whether the occupations will be that movement. "So far," he claims, "the Wall Street Occupiers have helped the Democratic Party" by emboldening them to press for millionaires' taxes and employ more populist rhetoric. In the long run, however, the occupiers will have a harder time becoming an equivalent counterforce to the Tea Parties if you measure that equivalence by their ability to really influence Democrats to the extent that TPs appear to influence Republicans. While the TPs' cultural populism strongly complements the Republican policy agenda, Reich claims that Democrats long ago abandoned the "economic populism" that would resonate with and respond to the occupations. By "economic populism" Reich seems to mean a rhetorical hostility to a moneyed elite -- the "economic royalists" of FDR's speeches and the "1%" of occupation sloganeering. Democratic reticence isn't just a matter of their apparent dependence on Wall Street donations. Reich traces it to the 1960s, when prosperity and a Keynesian consensus convinced JFK-era Democrats that populist rhetoric was obsolete, while the New Left only further alienated the party from its onetime populist base. In our time, President Obama is "as far from left-wing populism as any Democratic president in modern history." His perceived solicitude toward Wall Street has only infuriated populists from left and right alike. He cannot, Reich assumes, be pulled toward leftist economic populism the way Tea Partiers have supposedly pulled Republicans toward reactionary cultural populism.

Without disputing the details of Reich's account, I will question his premise. While it may well prove impossible for the occupiers to become the Democratic Tea Party, that doesn't mean that the occupiers can't play the Tea Party role for a broader, transpartisan left -- or, if you prefer, an economic-populist movement -- that the 2009 TPs have played for the GOP-centric right wing. It only means that the occupiers have more work cut out for them if they mean to build a political movement without a major party throwing itself at their feet. They may have to start from scratch -- and they may have started already. Whether the Democratic party benefits from the occupations isn't the same as whether the left, the "99%" or the nation as a whole benefit. Indeed, should the Democracy prove the primary beneficiaries, the benefit to the other groups would be questionable at best. If the Democrats prove as incapable of trimming their sails to catch the occupation breeze as Reich fears, that may be more of a good thing in the long run than Reich may realize.

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