Real Populism vs. Fake

Paul Street. Z Magazine (December 2011) 

Many in the U.S. corporate media were quick to call the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement that spread from New York City’s financial district to more than 800 U.S. locations between mid-September and mid-October as (in the words of Time Magazine’s Michael Scherer) “the Tea Party of the American left.” The story line draws on a number of obvious parallels. Like the Tea Party phenomenon that broke out in early 2009 and significantly influenced U.S. politics on behalf of the Republican Party in November 2010, OWS:  

  • speaks in angry terms on behalf of “the people” and against arrogant and greedy elites
  • denounces the subversion of American democracy, freedom, and prosperity by concentrated power and calls for taking the country back from the agents of subversion
  • expresses a sense that something has gone fundamentally wrong in America and that fundamental changes are required to restore balance, decency, and democracy
  • appeals to a mass of Americans who feel that “the system no longer works for them” and that they are getting nowhere despite “playing by the rules”
  • is driven by “anxiety about the economy [and] belief that big institutions favor the reckless over the hard-working” (New York Times reporter Kate Zernike)
  • claims to be independent, partisan, leaderless, and beyond the control of the dominant two establishment political parties

Consistent with this “parallel movements” narrative, the Democratic Party hopes and is working to turn OWS to its electoral advantage. “For a Democratic Party dispirited by its president’s sliding approval ratings,” the Wall Street Journal correctly reported early on, “the new energy has been greeted as a tonic comparable to what Republican congressional leaders tapped in the tea party movement—and are now finding it difficult to harness…. Democrats see an avenue to bring the anger back to their side” (WSJ, October 7, 2011).  

The Tea Party’s Fake Populism

 Beyond superficial similarities, however, fundamental differences undermine the Tea Party/OWS analogy. The quickly entrenched and mainstream media description of “the Tea Party” as a leaderless, independent, nonpartisan, anti-establishment, insurgent, grassroots, democratic, decentralized popular social and political protest movement was deeply inaccurate. The Tea Party’s active membership, leadership, and support base in 2010 (the year of the Tea Party’s greatest significance and popularity) was more affluent and far more reactionary than the U.S. citizenry as a whole. They were significantly racist, highly militaristic, viciously hostile to the poor, deeply ignorant, anti-intellectual, and reliant on propagandistic right-wing news and commentary. Many of its leaders and members exhibited: 

  • profound philosophic contempt for collective action
  • disturbing and revealing uniformity of rhetoric across groups, cities, and regions
  • stunning absence of local organizing
  • predominant prioritization of Republican electioneering over grassroots protest of any kind

The Tea Party is not an “uprising” against a corrupt political system or against the established social order. It is a reactionary, top-down manifestation of that system, dressed up and sold as an outsider rebellion set on changing the rules in Washington.   

OWS Is What the Tea Party Pretended to Be  

The Tea Party’s technical birth occurred when a former leading finance capitalist (Rick Santelli) went on CNBC on February 19, 2009 to denounce President Obama’s supposed leftist policy agenda and call (from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange) for a “Chicago Tea Party.” A top-down Tea Party quickly followed on the Internet. A Facebook page was created a day after “Santelli’s rant” by the arch-Republican, business-sponsored propaganda and advocacy group FreedomWorks, which called for “simultaneous Tea Party protests” across the country. This rapid and not-so-grassroots response was financed and coordinated by the right wing of the Republican Party and the right-wing business elite, who quickly hatched a handful of fake-populist protest entities (ResistNet, Tea Party Nation, Tea Party Patriots, Tea Party Express, and 1776 Tea Party). 

By contrast, OWS sprang up from outside and beneath the political establishment and without assistance from wealthy elites. It emerged from the activism of anarchist and other radically democratic militants, including a number of young activists with recent experience camping out to protest the New York City mayor’s pro-business policies. The movement’s founders acted on a clever suggestion made by the Canadian anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters: that activists “flood into lower Manhattan” to “occupy Wall Street” on September 17 and remain there—using the model of the revolutionary Egyptians who seized Cairo’s Tarhir Square in March 2011.  

Adbusters’ proposition was made on July 13, 2011. Three weeks later, left activists held a modestly attended organizing rally at the iconic Wall Street bull statue. As early organizer and anarchist anthropologist David Graeber recalls: “Over the next few weeks a plan began to take shape. The core of the emerging group…were young people who had cut their activist teeth on the Bloombergville encampment outside City Hall earlier in the summer; aside from that there was a smattering of activists who had been connected to the Global Justice movement with skills to share…and…a number of New Yorkers originally from Greece, Spain, even Tunisia, with knowledge and connections with those who were, or had been, involved in occupations there. We quickly decided that what we really wanted to do was something like what had already been accomplished in Athens, Barcelona, or Madrid: occupy a public space to create a New York General Assembly, a body that could act as a model of genuine, direct democracy to contrapose to the corrupt charade presented to us as ‘democracy’ by the US government” (D. Graeber, “On Playing by the Rules: The Strange Success of Occupy Wall Street,” Naked Capitalism, October 19, 2011,  

On September 17, 2011, roughly 2,000 activists and followers gathered in lower Manhattan. Denied access to their chosen target (a plaza outside Citibank), activists claimed Zucotti Park. They dug in, overcoming regular police harassment (including pepper-spraying and the use of batons) and the difficulties of living exposed to rain and cold. The rest, as they say, is history, including: 

  • a march across the Brooklyn Bridge that led to 700 arrests and generated remarkable publicity (October 1, 2011)
  •  a solidarity march to Zucotti Park by more than 15,000 trade unionists (October 5)
  •  the arrival of thousands of protestors to successfully defend the park against city efforts to shut it down (October 14)
  • a global day of action against big banks that ended with a mass sit-in at Times Square (October 15)

OWS really is a leaderless, democratic social movement. It makes its decisions through a democratic consensus process embodied in its nightly—extended and often fiercely contested—General Assembly (GA) process. Once decisions are made, OWS activists engage in a number of tasks and activities organized by the small committees the GA created through the consensus process: maintaining the camp, communicating with the municipal park and permit authorities, inviting outside speakers, holding teach-ins, staging poetry readings and musical performances, designing street theater, communicating with the other occupation chapters, soliciting donations and other forms of assistance, generating public outreach materials, holding marches and demonstrations, and more.   


OWS is a populist movement, targeting the nation’s leading economic institutions and modern capitalism’s concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the moneyed elite—what it calls “the One Percent.” Like past populist movements, it focuses its anger on the nation’s top corporations and financial institutions and the power the rich exercise over American economics, politics, policy, and culture.  

In contrast, the Tea Party directs its ire at government and trumpets the virtues of self-reliance and the unalterable rectitude of the so-called free market. As Time’s Ishaan Thoroor noted in a useful rejoinder to Scherer, the occupation movement seeks not to demonize and destroy the state, but rather to democratize government by taking it back from economic elites and building its positive capacities from the bottom up: “The answer, for many of the protesters I’ve spoken with, is never the wholesale dismantling or whittling away of the capabilities of political institutions (except, perhaps, the Fed), but a subtler disentangling of Wall Street from Washington. Government writ large is not the problem, just the current sort of government…. Occupy Wall Street, like most idealistic social movements, wants real political solutions…. [OWS activists speak] about the advent of ‘participatory budgeting’ in a number of City Council districts in New York—an egalitarian system, first brought about in leftist-run cities in Latin America, that allows communities to dole out funds in their neighborhoods through deliberation and consensus-building. It’s the same process that gets played out every day by the activist general assemblies held in Zuccotti Park and other occupation sites around the U.S.” (I. Thoroor, “Why You Shouldn’t Compare Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party,” Time/Global Spin, October 18, 2011). 


At its peak in the spring of 2010, a CBS-New York Times poll found that:  

·        76 percent of Tea Party supporters enjoyed household incomes above $50,000 

 ·        20 percent received more than $100,000 in income per year

 ·        78 percent described their financial situation as “good”

 ·        54 percent had a favorable opinion of the Republican Party

 ·        92 percent had an unfavorable view of the Democratic Party

 ·        57 percent had a favorable opinion of George W. Bush

 ·        66 percent had a favorable opinion of Sarah Palin

 ·        66 percent always or usually voted Republican

 A CNN poll determined that 82 percent of “strong tea party supporters” identified as Republicans and that 87 percent of “Tea Party activists” consistently voted Republican.  

OWS supporters are less affluent and far more non-partisan, insulated, and alienated from electoral politics. In mid-October the first major study on OWS’ much younger and poorer demographics came out, based on a survey of 1,619 respondents polled through the website The survey (Sean Captain, “The Demographics of Occupy Wall Street, Fast Company, October 19, 2011) determined that:  

·        72 percent of the movement’s supporters earned less than $50,000 

·        48 percent made less than $24,999  

·        28 percent received more than $50,000  

·        13 percent (higher than the national average by 4 points) were unemployed  

·        27 percent considered themselves Democrats and 2 percent Republicans  

·        70 percent called themselves Independents

 After more than two and a half years of the corporatism and imperialism of the Obama administration (absurdly denounced as “socialist” by Tea Partiers and the broader American right), the OWS “kids” get it that American “democracy” is no less crippled by the dark cloud of big money and corporate rule when Democrats hold nominal power than when Republicans do. They grasp that real progressive and democratic change can only come from an epic peoples’ fight against concentrated wealth and power—a fight that goes to the economic root of social, environmental, and political decay.  

Obama and the Democrats will face steep barriers of their own and Wall Street’s in trying to harness and ride the populism of OWS. “Given their reliance on Wall Street money, as well as radical demands from many protesters,” Arun Gupta says, “the Democrats will find it almost impossible to channel ‘the 99%’ into an electoral tidal wave next year, the way the Republicans rode the Tea Party to victory in 2010.” Gupta’s judgment is seconded by Time magazine columnist Joe Klein, who notes a big “problem [with] the President’s credibility as an anti-Wall Street crusader. He has none” (October 31, 2011).  

In Line with Majority Opinion  

Another OWS-Tea Party difference relates to their alignments with the values of the citizenry. Tea Partiers’ hard-right beliefs, including their strong embrace of the “free market” and their fierce opposition to taxes on the rich and to positive government social programs, stand well outside majority U.S. opinion. OWS’ core issue—the control of politics, policy, and more by the super-rich—resonates strongly with a progressive U.S. majority that dislikes the over-concentration of American wealth and power and stands to the left of both of the nation’s reigning business parties on numerous key issues. As Kevin Young noted on ZNet in early October: “The public is fiercely distrustful of corporate power and thinks that workers should have far more income, workplace protections, and political influence than they do. Strong majorities believe that the government has a responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to food, education, and health care. On tax and spending issues, polls have repeatedly confirmed that majorities favor large cuts to the military budget, higher taxes on the wealthy, and government stimulus spending to create jobs; this trend holds true for polls from the last two months…. One 2010 poll from the Program on International Policy Attitudes found that an astounding 81 percent of the U.S. public thinks that their country ‘is pretty much run by a few big interests’” (K. Young, “The Time is Ripe for a Mass Movement: 167 Million People Support Occupy Wall Street,” ZNet, October 15, 2011).

 Among the 50 percent of Americans who consider themselves familiar with the OWS protests, 79 percent think the gap between rich and poor is too large; 68 percent think the rich are under-taxed; 73 percent favor raising taxes on millionaires; and 86 percent think Wall Street and its lobbyists enjoy excessive influence in Washington (Young, “Time is Ripe”). A CBS/New York Times poll in mid-October found that two-thirds of the American population thought American wealth and money should be distributed more equally. Just 26 percent said that the nation’s wealth distribution was fair, (Zachary Roth, “Poll: More Agree than Disagree With OWS Goals,” The Lookout, October 26, 2011). No wonder that just three weeks into OWS, a Time poll found that 54 percent of Americans had either a “very favorable” (25 percent) or “somewhat favorable” (29 percent) view of the movement. The CBS/New York Times survey found that considerably more Americans agreed (43 percent) than disagreed (27 percent) with the goals of OWS (30 percent were unsure). Forty-six percent said OWS represented the views of most Americans, compared to 34 percent who said it did not and 20 percent who were unsure. From its emergence on the national scene, OWS has been considerably more popular among Americans than “the Tea Party.”  

While the Tea Partiers are heavily nationalistic, nativist, “patriotic,” racist, and militaristic, OWSers are strongly anti-racist, anti-war, opposed to the war on immigrants, and broadly hostile to the imperial and military state. Consistent with these contrasts, many of the original OWS activists are from other countries and OWS quickly inspired sympathetic movements across the world—something “the Tea Party” could never have achieved.  

OWSers explain poverty and unemployment primarily in terms of how the nation’s financial and corporate elite have slashed wages, destroyed unions, eliminated and off-shored jobs, and assaulted governmental social programs in the endless pursuit of profit. Tea Partiers blame the poor and unemployed themselves for their difficulties, attributing joblessness and poverty to irresponsible behavior and weak character on the part of those at the bottom. OWSers have attracted and welcomed sympathetic support from numerous local and national unions. Tea Partiers vilify organized labor, consistent with the Tea Party’s strong backing by right wing business.  

Worthy v. Unworthy Protest  

Last but not least, the Tea Party and OWS have elicited considerably different responses from government authorities and the corporate media. As a fake-populist pseudo-movement, Tea Party activists pose no threat to the existing corporate, military, sexist, eco-cidal, and white-supremacist state and have, therefore, operated free of government harassment, surveillance, arrest, violence, and incarceration. Things have been very different for OWS and its offshoots. Its genuinely radical-populist and democratic character and its militant determination to resist authority and create true public space has meant OWS activists have been subjected to repeated arrest, brutality, and ongoing surveillance by state authorities. 

The pattern of media response is also quite different, for the same basic reason. The Tea Party, in its expansion phase, received wildly outsized and favorable coverage and commentary that was largely consistent with its own deceptive self-branding as a genuinely populist, anti-establishment protest movement with real, reasonable, and detailed policy solutions that reflected widespread moderate and majority opinion against the supposed extremism of Washington and its purportedly left-leaning, big government president Barack Obama. Predictably, given corporate media’s bias on behalf of what it considers “worthy protests” and against what it sees as “unworthy protests” (ones that challenge those hierarchies), OWS has received far less coverage and what commentary they do get has tended to be dismissive, treating the new and actual populist movement as confused, contradictory, ignorant, paranoid, chaotic, un-focused, irresponsible, and generally without serious alternatives and solutions. How interesting that a significant plurality of Americans nonetheless find OWS’s basic goal—a more equitable distribution of wealth and power in the U.S. and the world—clear enough to agree.                                                                                                                                                                              Z 

 Paul Street ( is the author of numerous books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11; The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power; and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011). 

Facebook Comments
By | 2011-12-15T14:34:18+00:00 December 15th, 2011|Articles|