Why the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street Should Cooperate

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For all their disagreements, they share a belief that the relationship between finance and government needs reform

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On the private planes, Acela trains, and luxury automobiles that ferry high-ranking professionals back and forth between New York City and Washington, D.C., there are many passengers who understand that, were the details of their careers made public, they'd be disliked by both Tea Partiers and Occupy Wall Street protestors. Let's imagine just one of these guys.

He's worked on Pennsylvania Avenue and Wall Street. His current firm got bailout money, without which he wouldn't have received the bonus that puts him in the top one percent of earners. The sum of the political contributions he's made in his lifetime runs to six figures, and he wasn't particularly fond of any of the pols to whom he donated. The value he's added for his employers is his adeptness at gaming the system. He's against any increase in taxes, but he wouldn't mind new financial regulations so long as they afforded his firm a slight advantage over its competitors.

A guy like that must be grateful for the cultural divides, aesthetic differences, and deficiencies in the two party system that keep the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street at odds. He must love it when Nancy Pelosi dismisses the Tea Party as an AstroTurf effort controlled by some of the wealthiest right-wing extremists in America; and when Herman Cain dismisses the Occupy Wall Street protestors as jealousy-driven layabouts who'd rather take someone else's Cadillac than earn their own.

Right-leaning populists regard the nexus of big finance and big government as irredeemably corrupt; left-leaning populists agree! Alone, neither group can muster a sizable enough coalition to challenge the status quo. How convenient for the establishment that they're so easily pitted against one another.   

Don't misunderstand. Mutual wariness between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street makes sense. These are people whose visions for the future of the country are very different -- on certain issues of import, and in races between certain candidates, they ought to be battling one another. But winners in American politics recognize that antagonists can opportunistically ally in ways that advance discrete positions they share. Wall Street executives certainly know this. So do the Democrats and Republicans who benefit yearly from their generous campaign contributions. Neither Obama nor the executives at Goldman Sachs are foolish or myopic enough to pass up opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation. It's tea partiers and Occupy Wall Street types who conceive of American politics as zero sum game to be won via a definitive triumph over the other side. It never even occurs to them to get together for a chat about common objectives.

Ponder this passage from The Guardian:

Brendan Steinhauser of Freedomworks, a Washington-based group that runs a nationwide network of Tea Party off-shoots, says that "the tea parties arose out of opposition to the Wall Street bail-outs in 2008 - that was the event that gave birth to them, so yes it's funny that the Occupy Wall Street guys are also against phoney capitalism and we agree about that."

But that's where the affinity ends, he says. He observed the Occupy DC rally outside the Capitol and says what he saw there were "the same leftists, the same union organisers, the same Castro supporters you see on every leftist demonstration. It's same-old, same-old."

Isn't that interesting?

An organization opposed to the Wall Street bailouts learns that a bunch of people are so mad that they're taking to the streets, partly because of the bailouts. Does it see an opportunity to win converts, or at least to cooperate on a narrow reform? Nope. They're on the other team, so "same-old, same-old." Whereas if America elected an actual Castro-loving president who got inaugurated in a Tye-dye suit and Che Guevara T-shirt, does anyone doubt that the government relations folks at Bank of America and JP Morgan and Citi Bank would all be sitting around in their respective conference rooms earnestly brainstorming about how they could influence and co-opt and strategically cooperate with the new guy?

Here's the next paragraph in the Guardian piece:

David Webb has been watching the unfolding of the New York protests particularly closely. He organises a Manhattan-based group called Tea Party 365, and has been interested to see how the OWS shapes up by comparison. His conclusion is that the protests are rapidly being hijacked by interested parties. "The transport unions are getting behind it, rabble rousing and agitating, moveon.org is imposing its progressive agenda on it."

Webb acknowledges that Occupy Wall Street can be influenced by groups that approach it in a spirit of cooperation; but although he regards it as so susceptible to influence that it might be "hijacked," he never conceives of the possibility that the Tea Party might even marginally influence its behavior.

Most tea partiers will talk eagerly about the failures of the Republican Party, and the Occupy Wall Street folks with whom I've spoken are disappointed with the Democrats. Disillusionment with both parties is a precursor to marching in the streets. Yet both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street seem to be investing in a political approach where the strategy is to bring about a bigger triumph for Team Republican or Team Democrat. We've seen both kinds of victories in the past decade. Both Republicans and Democrats emerged disillusioned. Yet the widespread belief persists that next time will be different.

There's a better approach. Tea partiers and Occupy Wall Street protestors could vote for different candidates in 2012, fight vociferously about the ideal size of the federal government, and meanwhile cooperate to prevent big business and co-opted bureaucrats from capturing money that could be better spent (on tax cuts or deficit reduction or infrastructure or social welfare benefits, depending on the outcome of another fight). If the United States and the USSR struck mutually beneficial treaty agreements during the 1980s, if the ACLU and the NRA have usefully allied on civil liberties issues, despite their strikingly different donor bases, there is no reason save stubbornness and political immaturity that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street can't find areas on which to cooperate. Perhaps the Cato Institute and the Center for American Progress can co-host the summit, and Rand Paul and Dennis Kucinich can co-sponsor the resulting reform legislation. 

For the banker with influence in D.C., the incumbent politician needful of campaign cash, the professional lobbyist, and the bureaucrat seeking to cash out in the private sector alike, what I propose is a lot more frightening than the biggest Tea Party rally or Occupy Wall Street demonstration. As yet, however, Occupy Wall Street protesters tend to think of Tea Partiers as crypto-fascists, while pundits on the right dismiss anyone with a union card, a nose ring, and an iPad (as if the demonstrations would be worthwhile if only they were run by young men in Brooks Brothers suits). Unless these attitudes change, the establishment is going to win again. It usually does.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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