Economic conditions have seemed ripe for a popular uprising from
the left, and now 'Occupy Wall Street' protests are marshaling those
forces. But so far the tea party has greater focus and intensity.
Not long after the anticorporate "Occupy Wall Street" protests
began in New York, one question surfaced repeatedly: Could this be
the beginning of a liberal movement to counter the tea party?
Implicit in the question, however, is a concession that many even
on the left acknowledge: For several years now, the right has
largely driven and dominated the national conversation.
But why, amid America's worst economic crisis since the Great
Depression, has the upwelling of political activism been greater on
When the United States has been through periods of deep economic
anxiety before, the populist movements that mobilize ordinary
citizens against an empowered elite have typically pushed the
national agenda to the left. A century ago, they backed the idea of
a graduated income tax.
But now, at a time of high unemployment, record foreclosures, a
significant jump in poverty, and concerns about a possible new
recession, populist outrage has largely focused on government as a
problem rather than a source of economic cures.
"In general, for the past few years the enthusiasm has certainly
been more on the right end of the spectrum," says Michael Dimock, a
polling expert at the Pew Research Center for the People and the
Press. It's "an antigovernment movement more than an anticorporate
Political analysts cite several reasons. Some of the activity is
a backlash against the president. Since President Obama is a
Democrat, it's more likely that opposition will rise up on the
Another factor is that the nation's top priority, a dearth of
jobs, is hard to fix, with neither the left nor right offering
solutions that most of the public view as clear-cut winners. It's
possible that many tea party supporters are attracted to the
movement because it provides a clear target at which to vent -
bloated government - even if that may not be the cause of the
problem. Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup polls, uses
this analogy: "If you're mad at work, you come home and kick the
A third reason, some say, is that the right has found ways to
steadily deepen its roots, while the left has seen key institutions
such as labor unions wither.
It's a development decades in the making. Notably, Ronald Reagan
steered the country toward greater skepticism of government and a
stronger embrace of free-market economics. A parallel rise of
conservative think tanks, as well as the political influence of
Christian-right colleges and advocacy groups, helped spread this
By the time activists latched on to a 2009 rant by CNBC's Rick
Santelli, who raised the idea of a modern-day tea party, the field
had been prepared. The American right knew who its enemy was, and
conservative politicians, donors, and media - notably Fox News -
lavished attention and support on tea party rallies to help the
But "how do we account for the relative silence of the left?"
asked Michael Kazin, a Georgetown University historian, in a recent
New York Times opinion column.
To be sure, the left has its own parallel groups and backers. But
their clout has been diminishing, argues Mr. Kazin. Private-sector
labor unions have been in steady decline, he notes, and other
liberal groups have changed so they cater more to middle-class
social causes (the environment, same-sex marriage) than to the
economic concerns of ordinary workers.
Occupy Wall Street could become a remedy to that for the left.
The Wall Street protests in part express the frustration of a "lost
generation" of young Americans facing high student-loan debts and
grim job prospects. But they have rallied support from liberal
groups ranging from labor unions to MoveOn. …