The pundit class has largely ignored, dismissed or mocked the Occupy Wall Street protest (the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, for example, calls the protesters “a collection of ne’er-do-wells raging against Wall Street, or something”). We too find it hard to get especially worked up over a series of small demonstrations in a handful of cities, including Los Angeles, involving mostly disaffected people who have trouble expressing what it is they’re against. But isn’t that how the “tea party” started out?
The political left has been searching for the last couple of years to find an answer to the tea party. Some hoped last year’s rally in Washington led by TV comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, a response to right-wing rallies attended by such conservative media celebrities as Glenn Beck, would spark a national movement. That didn’t happen. Now they’re pinning their hopes on Occupy Wall Street, which in many ways is a mirror image of the tea party. Both groups are motivated by frustration over the rotten economy and are vague about causes and solutions, though if their positions could be summed up in a one-line manifesto, it might be: The tea party, dominated by elderly conservatives, blames government overspending and overreach for our economic problems and would therefore like to cut federal spending, while Occupy Wall Street, dominated by young liberals, blames corporate greed and would therefore like to tax the rich and decrease corporate political power.
It is, of course, far too early to suggest that Occupy Wall Street represents a resurgence of the left. But we do seem to recall that in its initial days the tea party was similarly dismissed by pundits, especially those on the left who preferred to see the protesters as kooks rather than the vanguard of a political shift. What matters isn’t the size of the protest, the attire of the demonstrators or the misspellings on their signs; it’s whether the relatively tiny number of people who can be bothered to show up and march can inspire and energize other like-minded people enough to get them to the polls.
By that measure, the tea party has been a phenomenal success. Republican voters turned out in big numbers in the 2010 elections while the Democratic vote was depressed, leading to the GOP takeover of the House of Representatives. A Gallup poll last week found Democratic enthusiasm for voting in 2012 is at its lowest level in a decade, trailing Republicans’ net enthusiasm by 27%. No one can say whether Occupy Wall Street will change that. But it would be a mistake to write off the movement before it gets started.