Occupation and Co-optation: The Tea Party to Occupy NYC


The outraged, indignant, and unrefined message of tens of thousands of individuals who have taken to the streets of New York and other cities across the United States these past weeks that “we are the 99%” signals the arrival of something as inevitable and predictable as it is fantastic. Occupy Wall Street is another expression of populist anger over rising economic inequality and corruption, unfocused but very real, that has manifested since the financial collapse of 2008 and the unprecedented display of corporate socialism which occurred thereafter. The bailout of financial institutions whose reckless behaviour caused the crash coupled with the austerity and tough-love capitalism shown to the homeowners and working individuals whose lives were devastated by its effects was the one-two punch that led many people to begin seeking alternatives to a status quo which no longer seemed tenable. This was channelled in different ways by different individuals. For some the financial crash itself (pre-bailout) led them to embrace what was at the time viewed as a message of ambiguous yet transcendent “change” from Barack Obama, and led others to take to their communities and embrace the grassroots populism of a nascent political movement which came to be known as the Tea Party.

What was the Tea Party about and what was it protesting? Despite differences in culture and in tone it would seem that many (though absolutely not all) of its grievances run parallel to many of those of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Populist Tea Party anger over the financial bailout and government corruption are naturally related to the anger over government malfeasance which has been expressed by many individuals taking part in Occupy protests across the country. Corruption and perceived failure of leadership is a theme that they both share and which seems to brand the two movements as relatives, albeit estranged.  A seed planted in two different locales will grow to resemble something different but its roots are the same regardless where it is. Cultural differences are extraneous to the overlap between many of the core issues both movements grew to address, and differences of character between participants in both movements have certainly been exacerbated by those in media and government who caricature them for their own purposes. It remains to be seen what Occupy Wall Street will become, and by no means is it identical to the Tea Party, but the reflexive drive of those in the media to demonize its participants while ignoring their core message closely mirrors how the Tea Party was caricatured before it was, safely once and for all, co-opted.

Millions of people around the country took part in Tea Party rallies, many of them for the same ambiguous yet viscerally emotional reasons that have led people today to take part in hundreds of Occupy rallies across the United States. Such a display of popular self-determination unharnessed and un-channelled into existing political structures was quickly recognized as an unacceptable threat to the status quo by those in the political establishment who are wholly invested in the maintenance of the present order. Politicians and media personalities, those well integrated within the present power structure of the country began to show face at Tea Party events and made promises to address the demands of the protestors while at the same time subtly steering the movement in a direction that would for them be less subversive and more useful. Movements are malleable, especially when they grow from the grassroots and gain the interest of powerful individuals and institutions. The Tea Party slowly but surely began to be identified less with any legitimate populist movement than with the Republican Party itself, as well as its various operatives and pseudo-celebrities within the media and popular culture. A movement that was created in part to confront official corruption and cronyism vis-à-vis the corporate world is now a recipient of funding from the Koch brothers and is the “sponsor” of countless status quo GOP politicians who pay lip-service to some of its ideals while continuing to maintain business as usual within Washington DC. There are many theoretically “Tea-Party” politicians sitting in Congress today but are they really in tune with the actual demands of the movement whose banner they took up? Is John Boehner faithful or contemptuous of the demands of millions of people whom his party convinced to channel their energy into the Republican Party? The GOP recognized, harnessed, and eventually co-opted what was the Tea Party and used it to accomplish its own goals while largely extinguishing the movement itself. What existed for a brief moment as a legitimate and virulent protest against the failures and abuses of government became another perverse curiosity in Washington DC, neutered of any capacity to effect real change. The “movement” is now another hollow badge to be worn by status-quo politicians and discarded in a few years once it is no longer useful.

All this leads us back to the crowded, energized streets of New York, Boston, San Francisco and countless other cities today. A new movement has coalesced, again from the grassroots and again galvanized in anger and outrage at government corruption and cronyism. The contours and aesthetics are different, but the same populist ferment is there, and with it the same potential for either magnificent success or abject, cynical failure. The same forces who saw the Tea Party and knew that it could (and must) be co-opted and utilized for their own purposes have already set their eyes on the people in the streets today, but this time they come from the supposed left instead of the right. Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama and the same crew of establishment politicians have recognized both an opportunity and a threat in the Occupy movement and by expressing support for it have begun the process of co-opting and making it irrelevant if the need should arise.

When people like Van Jones or Michael Moore, tell you to vote for Democratic politician X it is worth asking yourself, “If I want to change the status quo, why would I vote for someone who is wholly invested in maintaining the status quo?” How can you vote your way to change when you are voting for people for whom change is totally counter to their interests? This is how promising movements get co-opted and ultimately destroyed, when the energy that gives birth to them is channelled into the same pre-existing structures which they were created to challenge in the first place. The real enemies of Occupy Wall Street are not just faceless financial oligarchs and corrupt bureaucrats, but anyone who says, for instance, that voting for Barack Obama in 2012 is the solution to the country’s problems. A defunct and seemingly decrepit establishment needs a complete reboot, not more hollow promises from those who have so utterly failed and betrayed their constituents already. If politicians or parties arise which are faithful to what the people demand then by all means fight for them, but giving new energy to those who have already shown themselves to be corrupt and ineffectual will lead to Occupy Wall Street being just one of many potentially powerful movements to be co-opted, used, and discarded by those they were created to confront.


3 Responses to Occupation and Co-optation: The Tea Party to Occupy NYC

  1. manalkhan says:

    hey murtaza, how can one subscribe to your blog? you should add that widget! for those old fogies bloggers out there who don’t use twitter :p

  2. mazmhussain says:

    haha I just followed you actually. there should be a button at the top!

  3. Pingback: Consider Magazine » Blog Archive » Endpoint

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: