Something creepy is happening in Minnesota. A dialogue has begun between the Tea Party and Occupy movements. Stranger still, it may be leading somewhere.
Facilitating the discussion is an organization called the Caux Round Table. Global Executive Director Steve Young seems hell-bent on bridging the divide between the two movements.
Young is the author of Moral Capitalism, a tome outlining the Caux Round Table’s vision for “reconciling private interest with the public good.” In speaking to Young and perusing his book, it is apparent that he is adept at speaking any political language, in sounding conservative to conservatives and progressive to progressives. This is not deception or pandering. Young simply aspires to operate above the political fray, and genuinely believes in consensus between perceived extremes.
Although he has never said it, Young and his organization appear to be communitarian, evangelists of “the third way” once evoked by President Bill Clinton. Communitarians seek a synthesis of capitalism and communism, an imagined happy middle ground where people can pursue their dreams in a market smartly regulated to ensure that the poor and under-privileged don’t slip through the cracks. Young’s book synopsis explains:
Author Stephen Young argues that “brute capitalism” — profit-seeking regardless of effects — must give way to moral capitalism to attain widespread monetary and moral well-being.
You get the idea.
Seeing the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street as two sides of the same coin, Young and the Caux Round Table have reached out to activists from each movement to debate the role of government and deliberate a proposed “joint statement of common principles.” This author is among those representing the Tea Party in that process, and has been afforded the opportunity to engage Occupiers in moderated forums.
So far, the possibility of consensus between the movements seems dependent on our willingness to ignore glaring differences. There are certain fundamental impasses beyond which consensus is impossible. However, the discussion has offered some insight into what makes Occupiers tick, who they are beyond the hyperbole of the media, and how their worldview may track far more conservative than they realize.
Here are eight reasons why today’s Occupiers may become tomorrow’s Tea Partiers.
8 ) The Futility of Protest Without Power
The word “powerful” is an epithet among many activists, regardless of their political persuasion. The Powerful are often evoked as a faceless, shadowy elite playing by a different set of rules at the expense of the rest of us. No distinction is made between the Powerful and power itself. As a result, the notion of obtaining power to affect change is often met with knee-jerk revulsion. There is an irrational fear that contact with power taints the activist, and an equally irrational conviction that power itself must somehow be neutralized. This creates a kind of anti-activism where nothing of real consequence is accomplished, protest without effect.
The Tea Party certainly has its share of anti-activists. However, most Tea Partiers realize that power is not inherently evil. The very notion of evil presumes a morality, and morality presumes agency and free will. It is how people choose to use power, and not power itself, which has moral consequence. More importantly, power is required to affect any change in policy.
Occupy is resistant to embrace the fact that power is a tool to be morally utilized. For this reason, despite their elevated media status, their potency as a political force is negligible. The same was true of the Tea Party early on, which is why there has been a marked drop-off in the amount and size of Tea Party rallies. Tea Partiers have come to realize that protest without power is little more than cathartic release. As Occupiers come to recognize that same futility, they will be one step closer to Tea Partiers.
7 ) The Futility of a Movement Without Focus
The Occupy movement prides itself on its lack of hierarchy, organization, and focus. Occupiers value inclusion over definition at the expense of substance and direction.
It makes sense when you consider the aforementioned fear of power. The notion that someone is “in charge” suggests authority, something the Occupy movement has great contempt for.
The Tea Party is similarly amorphous, lacking a centralized organization or explicit hierarchy. However, the Tea Party has a different motivation for its cellular structure. Tea Partiers generally respect authority and value organization, but recognize that the integrity of the movement depends upon independence from a hierarchy where individual leaders might be compromised in one way or another.
In addition, the Tea Party has a set of core principles which generally unite them – fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets. Occupiers can’t seem to agree on anything, and instead operate from the vague sense that money and power are bad.
Without a clear focus, an objective and a plan to achieve it, the brighter Occupiers will eventually bore of fruitless activism and either reevaluate or disengage. Those who reevaluate may discover an affinity for the Tea Party’s message of proper governance and individual liberty.
6 ) Revolution Is a Poor Alternative to Participation
The notion that the political system is broken seems to be a keynote of the Occupy movement. In the most recent Caux Round Table debate between the Tea Party and Occupy, the eldest Occupier stressed this idea. The people are not being served by their government, he claimed.
Cited was a local controversy over public-funding for a new Vikings stadium. The Minnesota Twins benefited from the construction of a new stadium a few short years ago in a scheme where officials cut voters out of the process because they knew a referendum would sink the playground for millionaires. The same process is occurring today on behalf of the Vikings. The Occupier pointed to the example as an indication that government is largely detached from the people it is constituted to serve.
Tea Partiers are likely to agree with that sentiment. However, a key difference between the movements is that Tea Partiers retain hope for restoration within the existing political structure, while many Occupiers are revolutionaries who believe the system is beyond repair and requires fundamental radical change.
The problem with the broken system sentiment is that it leaves us with nowhere to go. Either we roll over and resign ourselves to the status quo, or we engage in some undefined revolution. Revolution is a drastic measure, inherently violent and unpredictable. As a means of political change, revolution ought to be the last arrow in our quiver. We first ought to exhaust every other option.
In 2010, voter turnout in the general election was a dismal 41%. Primary election turnout averages in the teens. The average man on the street has no idea what a caucus is. Even those who participate in party politics are loathe to stay through an entire convention to hold party officers accountable and steer platforms, constitutions, and rules. Excepting for paid lobbyists and union-organized astroturf, legislative galleries and hearing rooms are wastelands. Citizens rarely take it upon themselves to follow or testify in the legislative process. The media only covers the most easily demagogued issues, pimping divisiveness rather than informing the citizenry. In a country with such abysmal participation and interest in the political process, it cannot be seriously argued that the system is broken. The system is working just fine for those who show up and utilize it. Until the people get off their collective duff and start making use of the non-violent and lawful tools at their disposal, arguing for revolution is a cop-out which diverts attention from genuine opportunities for activism to irresponsible calls for radical upheaval.
When Occupiers search their souls and ask themselves what the consequences of revolution might be to themselves and their loved ones, they may begin to realize that there is an easier if less sexy way to affect change.
5 ) Force, Not Money, Is the Root of All Evil
A popular sentiment among activists from across the political spectrum is that we ought to get money out of politics. Money is the root of all evil, we’re told. The Citizens United case is thought the bane of democracy, and evoked in calls for comprehensive campaign finance reform.
In truth, money is not the problem. Restricting the flow of money into politics only redirects cronyism. It doesn’t stop it.
The real problem is what is for sale. Government is force. That is its essential and exclusive quality. Government has the unique capacity to lawfully coerce behavior. When that capacity is unmoored from justice, it becomes available to the highest bidder. That is what has happened in America. Lobbyists and donors are lined up to purchase the initiation of force against their economic and political competitors. Winners get to wield a club with which to bludgeon others into submission. Losers are S.O.L.
That is why constitutionally limited government is so important, and why Tea Partiers are so enamored with the Founding and all its historical trappings. Limiting the state’s power to strictly defined roles prevents regulatory capture and other forms of cronyism.
If Occupiers really want to defang corporate lobbyists, they should defang Washington. Some of them may eventually come to realize that.
4 ) No One Will Ever Care About You More Than You
Okay, so maybe there are some exceptions here. Your parents may have made some good decisions for you at some point. However, among your peers and neighbors, no one has a greater interest in you than you. If you aren’t wiling to do something for yourself, it’s tough to argue why others should do it for you.
So much of political activism is saturated with an irrational sense of entitlement, as if citizenship were like sitting in a restaurant waiting to be served. The youngest Occupier at the most recent Caux Round Table debate lamented a system which fails to “empower people.”
This is a notion which defies good sense. What exactly are we expecting to happen here? Does someone from “the system” come around the neighborhood knighting citizens? Who are we looking at to empower us? And why would they do so?
If you want power, you claim it by right and wield it jealously. No one is making the rounds in an effort to dispense it. Furthermore, no one who has taken the time and effort to claim and wield their own power is going to waste theirs delivering yours. Consider Democratic urban wastelands such as Detroit as examples. If anyone in power was actually going to follow up on their rhetoric of empowerment, they would have done it by now.
It has become a counter-intuitive point in our hand-wringing culture, but no one outside your family is likely to lose sleep over your problems. Indeed, it would be creepy if they did. Why then do we have this unfounded expectation that someone is going to come along and grant us wings?
The hope here is that, once Occupiers begin to shed their fear of power and start wielding it effectively, there may be some cognitive trigger which forms an expectation that others do the same. That expectation is called individualism, and it’s far more Tea Party than Occupy.
3 ) Ownership Has Its Privileges
There is a sense among Occupiers that they have been defrauded or deprived of something which was rightfully theirs. Foreclosure is a common complaint. Even though Occupiers’ perception of foreclosure is misguided, the fact that they retain some sense of the right to property is encouraging.
While there is certainly a profound sense of entitlement entwined in complaints over foreclosure, the underlying sentiment is that people work hard in pursuit of their dreams and ought to benefit from that effort. Failure to acknowledge the validity of foreclosure is not necessarily a wholehearted rejection of property as such. What it does indicate is a fundamental misunderstanding of the moral claim to property.
According to Occupy rhetoric, need is a moral claim. Nevermind that a homeowner is six months past due on their mortgage, they need the house more than the bank does. After all, to the occupant a house is home, while it is just another asset to the bank.
However, need is not a moral claim, and most people instinctively know that. Consider that the Occupiers in Zuccotti Park revolted against homeless drifters among their ranks when the latter showed up looking to partake of the gourmet meals then being prepared by volunteers. Surely, the homeless needed that food more than the protestors. Yet, the Occupiers did not recognize that need as a legitimate claim upon their food. That is a universal principle which, properly understood, translates to the sentiment that we are taxed enough already. It is as true of any government-administered entitlement as it is of volunteered food in Zuccotti Park.
2 ) There’s a Legitimate Case for Not Trusting Anybody Over 30
During the counter-culture of the 1960s, a sentiment proliferated among the radical youth that anyone over 30 years old was untrustworthy. At the time, it was a mindless appeal to youth ego, an attempt to undermine tradition, authority, and education. Today, however, there’s actually a case to be made.
President Obama’s currently proposed budget places the national debt on track to reach 900% of GDP by 2075. Imagine. That’s like a household earning $40,000 a year facing a debt of $360,000! The interest alone, even at a meager rate, practically consumes the entire income. We can’t tax our way out of a debt that’s 900% of what the entire country produces. Then again, the people placing us on this course won’t have to worry about it. They’ll be dead when the bill comes due.
For Occupiers under 30 years old, those college students upset about their student loans and poor job prospects, the question is whether this atrocity will be taken lying down. Wall Street isn’t the culprit here. Wall Street doesn’t impose debt on anyone. Wall Street doesn’t have that power. The culprit is Washington, and the crime is irresponsible spending fueled by borrowing and printing money, fleecing tomorrow’s taxpayers today.
Occupy, are you okay with this?
1 ) The Wisdom of Age
Given the last point, you might expect the Tea Party to be made up of those 30 and younger, people whose yet-to-be-earned ox is currently being gored. That would certainly make sense. Of course, in truth, the makeup of Tea Party crowds is overwhelmingly older. A sea of silver and grey hair dominates most tax rallies. That’s probably because life experience provides testament to the truth of Tea Party principles.
Childhood is a period of nurturing and provision. Young adults are often just being introduced to the idea of truly caring for themselves. In that context, and absent education to the contrary, the notion that the world owes people something is actually intuitive. After all, young adults have been cared for longer than they haven’t.
Age brings a different perspective. Years of adulthood spent earning and self-directing reveals the cold hard truth of economic law. Even people who cling to abstract socialist sentiments, like need as a moral claim justifying wealth redistribution, abandon those ideas when concretized in a way which picks their pocket.
We’ve already referenced the example of Occupiers turning against the homeless when the latter mooched food. However, just as ironic is criticism of so-called “American jobs being shipped overseas.” Forgetting for the moment that no one is entitled to an employment relationship, is not the redistribution of opportunity from the relatively affluent to the relatively poor precisely what Occupy is advocating? On a global scale, the transfer of a job from the United States to just about anywhere else is a transfer from the global 1% to the global 99%.
That’s the lesson Occupiers may learn with age. There is always someone poorer. The question thus becomes whether Occupiers are willing to put their money where their mouth is, to sacrifice their quality of life to benefit those less fortunate, and not in some small showy way like volunteering at a soup kitchen. We’re talking about sacrificing generational opportunity, sacrificing freedom of travel, the convenience of technology, and the tangible comforts of modern life. That means a lot more than most Occupiers have thought through. It means not having the means or the opportunity to complain about perceived injustice because it has become a struggle merely to survive. That’s the reality that awaits a nation on track to reach debt at 900% of GDP.
The perception that Occupiers are committed socialists is not entirely accurate. Certainly, when socialist concepts are concretized, many object to the results.
Where Occupiers and Tea Partiers see eye-to-eye is in protest of cronyism. The difference is that Occupiers tend to see cronyism as a product of capitalism, while Tea Partiers tend to recognize it as an abandonment of capitalism. An Occupy blogger offers a glimmer of hope:
I have some reservations about whether the maldistribution of wealth and power can be attributed to capitalism as such. It also appears that not all participants in the Occupy movements are against capitalism. And finally, I’m not sure that replacing capitalism with some other form of economic organization is either possible, or necessary to address the problems raised by the movement.
That’s halfway to an epiphany. The only way to maldistribute wealth is to maldistribute power. And the only entity capable of that is government. Once Occupiers come to that realization, they’ll find compatriots among the Tea Party.