Occupational Hazards

By Hertzberg, Hendrik | The New Yorker, November 7, 2011 | Go to article overview

Occupational Hazards


Hertzberg, Hendrik, The New Yorker


If politics is show business for ugly people (which, by the way, it's not, not this time, not the ugly-people part anyway, not with a cast of characters as glossy as Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin's ghost, and Barack Obama), is Occupy Wall Street the Tea Party for liberal people? Or, at least, for people who generally prefer a Democratic lesser evil to a Republican greater one?

Something Tea Partiers and Occupiers might agree on is that the groups are not like each other. (They certainly don't look alike.) Yet there's an irresistible symmetry. Both arose on the political fringe, more or less spontaneously, in response to the financial crisis and its economic consequences. Neither has authoritative leaders or a formal hierarchical structure. Each was originally sparked by a third-tier media outlet, albeit of opposite types--one by a cable business-news reporter's rant against "losers' mortgages," the other by an e-mail blast from an anti-corporate, nonprofit, incongruously slick Canadian magazine. Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party are both protest movements, not interest groups, and while both are wary, or claim to be, of established political figures and organizations, each welcomes their praise, if not their direction. Both have already earned places in the long, raucous history of ideologically promiscuous American populism. But only one, so far, has earned a place in the history of American government.

From the start, Democratic politicians and their center-left institutional allies watched the Tea Party with, besides fear and loathing, a certain professional envy. After Obama sailed into office on the biggest popular-vote majority in twenty years, Republicans were left treading water. A few months later, the Tea Party came along to pick them up, dry them off, give them a new suit of clothes, and set them on a starboard course to victory in the 2010 midterms. The rescue wasn't free of charge, of course. The cost, to the country as well as to the sad remnants of moderate Republicanism, has been high. But there's no denying the potency of whatever it was that the brave new party injected into the scarred veins of the grand old one.

Now Democrats are hoping that the drug might be available as a generic. Among the hopers, apparently, are President Obama ("In some ways," he said recently, when asked about the Occupations, "they're not that different from some of the protests that we saw coming from the Tea Party") and Vice-President Biden ("Look, there's a lot in common with the Tea Party"). Occupy Wall Street went to the air mattresses on September 17th. Not long after, statements of sympathy and outright endorsements started pouring into Zuccotti Park like donated pizzas. Nancy Pelosi, Al Gore, congressmen galore, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the editorial board of the Times, big unions like the Auto Workers, the Service Employees, the Teamsters, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. itself--it's been quite a stampede. But translating the visionary protest of the Wall Street Occupiers into the grubby Washington politics of electoral calculation and legislative maneuvering is unlikely to be as easy as it was for the Tea Partiers and the Republicans.

The Tea Party is simply better adapted to--and, despite its angry face, less alienated from--the actually existing environment of American politics and government. Its purported fear of cooption didn't stop it from accepting millions of dollars (and offers of "training") from Astroturf outfits like the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity and Dick Armey's FreedomWorks, while Fox News and talk radio provided it with a ready-made apparatus for organizing and propaganda. The Tea Party has never doubted the efficacy of elections; it has focussed on officeholders and would-be officeholders all along. The paradigmatic Tea Party activity, in the summer of 2009, was to pack a local congressman's "town hall" and shout imprecations against Obamacare. …

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