Like national group, Occupy Nola could learn from Tea Party

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The Great Recession officially began in December 2007 and lasted until June 2009. However, the profoundly un-hopeful post-recession “recovery” continues, and it has helped the Tea Party emerge as the major political movement of the past two years. Passionate Tea Party demonstrations have succeeded in pushing Republican candidates to the right, and supporters helped the GOP retake the House of Representatives in 2010.

You may recall that the Tea Party was formed a few weeks after President Obama’s inauguration, in response to an allegedly impromptu rant by a CNBC analyst against government assistance to foreclosure victims. Foreclosure spending was one bailout too far, apparently, and Tea Parties convened and channeled public rage toward Obama’s attempts to lessen the Great Recession’s impact.

It’s funny, because many of these Tea Partiers spent the better part of 2008 denying that we were even in a deep recession. Rather than admit the obvious, they blamed Democratic candidates for cravenly “talking the economy down,” or they blamed “the media” for running too many stories on an imaginary slowdown. I remember callers on conservative talk radio who would ask how anyone can say we’re in a recession when the local Wal-Mart was sold out of Wii game systems. The talk radio hosts eagerly agreed with the anecdotal nonsense.

When the financial collapse became indisputable, Tea Partiers decided that the recession – which they discounted just weeks earlier – should be allowed to worsen. That’s right. Suddenly they were ranting about the dangers of government bailouts in economic down times. They warned that the spending would actually prolong the pain because it would curtail the necessary amount of “creative destruction” needed to cleanse our capitalist, free-market economy. Further, deficit spending would also saddle our children with more debt, raise interest rates, and worsen everything in the long run.

Now you might’ve missed the Tea Party’s “Let the Recession Worsen” argument, because most of their rhetoric was geared against “big government ‘socialism’ ” and the “Kenyan Anti-colonialist” in the Oval Office. Let’s be charitable, though, and say that the movement was mainly a resistance to spending. And let’s also put aside the arguments Tea Partiers made about the cause of the belatedly recognized recession, which revealed their belief in utopian capitalism. (In short: slowdowns never occur because of overproduction or greedheads in high finance ignoring risk. Neither capitalism nor conservatism are ever at fault, only governments that are insufficiently capitalistic or conservative, and lapsed into liberal tax, trade, or spending policies. The excuses of utopian capitalists pretty much mirror the far Left’s old “but that wasn’t true socialism” dodge.)

So even when I charitably interpret the Tea Party movement, I still can’t shake the belief that they can’t handle the extreme capitalism implied by their anti-socialism. That is to say: even if Tea Partiers feel, individually, like they can endure any macro-economic hardship, I don’t believe they can handle the political repercussions of such downturns. What is their political strategy to handle a recession, as it’s occurring?

For example, in the past few years you didn’t hear a lot of Tea Partiers say “Hey, even in a laissez-faire wonderland like the late 1800’s, depressions were inevitable. It’s our job, as true conservatives, to explain to the victims of these hard times why such downturns are necessary, and why it’s ultimately best if the country maintains policies of cold-headed austerity rather than liberal programs that enlarge the welfare state. Sure, this is a tough political task, but if we don’t do it, how can we blame the poor and jobless when they vote for a more liberal government?”

If I regularly heard mature statements like that from the Tea Party, I’d regard them as less childish.

Now, though, we’re hearing more about the nascent Occupy Wall Street protest and less about the Tea Party. According to this Mother Jones article, Occupy Wall Street began with a dubious call to gather in protest and arrive at one specific “demand” to make upon Obama. But this “one demand” strategy quickly devolved into an inchoate protest for everything under the progressive/socialist sun: single-payer health care, a living wage for all, new alternative energy economy, infrastructure development, destruction of the credit system, free college education…

Now, trust me, I understand how easy it is to be the armchair cynic who won’t participate in any protest unless it’s the perfect cause at the perfect time for the perfectly achievable goal. I realize that attitude is a cop-out and truly respect people who sincerely mobilize to change their world for the better. And I also know how tough it is to gather various groups to march against powerful opposition. Hell, I used to organize anti-death penalty marches… in Texas. I understand long odds.

Still, come on. Our anti-death penalty group had a clear objective and could explain our cause in a handful of words. Even any Tea Partier can tell you they’re against runaway spending, even if in the next breath they warn the government: “Hands off my Medicare!”

So, on Thursday I biked to Tulane Aveune and Broad Street to see if the local Occupy NOLA movement would be any more focused than the national movement. Unfortunately, the local sister protest was equally un-concentrated. They chanted for and against a laundry list of causes.  Up with justice, housing, jobs, economic equity… Down with Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, capitalism, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Police Superintendant Ronal Serpas. Activists handed me four page treatises in tiny type, front and back, explaining their socialist “principles.”  I don’t have time for that.

Occupiers, please, I beg you, pick an issue. Work on your “elevator pitch.”  Hand me an executive summary of your principles. Know your audience, please.

Perhaps, for starters, the Occupy Wall Street crowd could make a focused demand for the Justice Department to prosecute the Wall Street greedheads who put this country in a near depression. ABC news correspondent Jake Tapper, of all people, raised the topic in a recent presidential press conference. Tapper told Obama:

 [O]ne of the reasons why so many of the people of the Occupy Wall Street protests are so angry is because, as you say, so many people on Wall Street did not follow the rules, but your administration hasn’t really been very aggressive in prosecuting. In fact, I don’t think any Wall Street executives have gone to jail despite the rampant corruption and malfeasance that did take place.

It’s sad when a mainstream news reporter has to summarize what your political movement’s focus should be. Obama responded to Tapper by saying that the Wall Street misdeeds in recent years were immoral but not illegal, and the new Dodd-Frank banking law took care of the rest.

It wasn’t very convincing and I think the Occupiers should demand that Obama step up efforts to prosecute the Wall Street suits. They’d have a decent chance of succeeding, and could perhaps leverage that success into other causes. Anything would be better than childishly demanding  dozens of wide-ranging (and sometimes conflicting) radical changes… Now!

I will give the Occupy Nola protest some credit. It was well-attended, and they applied for a permit to march, so the very NOPD some of them railed against could clear the streets for them. Also, Occupy Nola had a team of legal observers in day-glo yellow caps there, in case any incidents occurred. Even so, an overall lack of strategy diminished the effort. One huge mistake was parading on the same afternoon when all of the city’s leaders were attending Archbishop Philip Hannan’s funeral. Also, Jeffrey at Library Chronicles ridiculed the masks some Occupiers wore, but maybe more should’ve hidden their mugs. I saw police photographing protesters up close with an expensive camera (perhaps to enhance a new facial recognition technology database?).

I think many people share my concerns about the lack of strategy in the Occupy Wall Street movement. They think that the protests are generally aimed in the right direction, but would prefer more laser focus and less of a shotgun-blast approach. A recent @OccupyNola tweet declared “You not knowing what we’re protesting isn’t the same as us not knowing.” Yes, that’s true, but your movement’s chances for success would improve if we both knew.

At least the Occupy Wall Street protests are not burdened with high expectations from the outside. Perhaps, over time, their sheer persistence can overcome their strategic weakness and unclear objectives. Or maybe they’re employing new revolutionary tactics that critics like myself can’t yet discern. I’ll bet on the former possibility over the latter, but still, persistence shouldn’t be underestimated.

As President Calvin Coolidge, that spiritual forefather of Tea Party ideology, once observed,“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence…. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

 

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