This is the story of two political movements. As with any such movement, both eventually got to the point where they asked themselves the fundamental question of what they were attempting to achieve, and (more importantly) what methods they were going to use to accomplish their goals. This fork in the road can be summed up as: do we work within the existing system, or is the system itself so broken we should work outside the system in order to reform the workings of the system itself. One group chose one path, the other chose to head the other direction.
I'm speaking, of course, of the Tea Partiers and the Occupiers. Both groups started with a simple motivation: to "take the country back" from those who had hijacked it. Of course, both groups defined that statement in radically different ways, but the motivation was similar enough. Both groups started in disarray, without clearly defined goals (or, as the media demanded, "demands"), and with a healthy amount of suspicion for "the system" they were attempting to change.
To be fair, being part of the Occupy Wall Street movement was fairly clear-cut, while even today it is tough to pin down exactly what is encompassed when using the term "Tea Party." Powerful conservative groups moved almost immediately to co-opt the origins of the Tea Party, and have been very successful at doing so. Within the Tea Party ranks are found pure libertarians, social and religious conservatives, anti-tax fanatics, and the "AstroTurf" money which drives a lot of media events (which tends to lead the media to identify this group as being the core of the Tea Party -- a conclusion many rank and file Tea Partiers would have a major problem with).
But even given this complex nature, it's pretty easy to see that the Tea Party largely chose to work within the American political system, while the Occupiers chose to reject that system and work for change from the outside.
Working within the system can mean a couple of different things. You can attempt to pool money together and form a lobbying group, for instance. Or you can work to directly elect candidates you prefer to political office, in the hopes that they'll work for the changes you would like to see once they get in office. Working outside the system has many more options, such as the "occupation" tactic itself, staging protests and rallies, labor actions such as one-day strikes, creating your own mass communications system to get your word out, and things of this nature.
While it is unfair to compare the two movements, since one started about two years earlier than the other, it is still impossible to deny that the Tea Partiers have been more effective at achieving their goals -- or, at the very least, getting their candidates into office. This is partly due to another aspect of the Tea Party -- the fact that a lot of this energy has been around for a long time in Republican circles, and the whole "Tea Party" explosion of energy was nothing more than an exercise in re-branding a major chunk of the Republican Party base. Democratic Tea Partiers may exist, but they are indeed a rare creature, as most Tea Partiers likely voted Republican for a long time before the Tea Party ever existed.
The one thing both movements spectacularly succeeded in doing was changing the American political narrative. The Tea Party rebranding caught the media's eye, and they started framing their stories around the anti-tax, slash-the-budget Tea Party message. Politicians of both parties soon followed suit. The Occupy movement gave birth to the "99 Percent" theme, which also was picked up by the media and members of the Democratic Party (Republicans have mostly shied away from using this framing). Both the Occupiers and the Tea Partiers changed the American political conversation in a large way -- and that is not an easy task to accomplish for any group or movement.
Still, having said that, it cannot be denied that the Tea Party has moved a lot closer to actually changing the American political system and its laws than the Occupiers have managed. The Tea Partiers have had some spectacular successes, as well as some spectacular failures. Nominating unqualified people for Senate races -- people who enthusiastically embraced the Tea Party rhetoric and swore they were the best person for the job because they had no experience -- likely lost Republicans the chance to take control of the chamber in 2010. Harry Reid would now be in retirement in Nevada instead of being Senate Majority Leader if the Tea Party primary voters had made better choices, to put it another way. This may play out in the 2012 election cycle in House and Senate races in some "purple" states as well.
But even with this handicap, the Tea Partiers are indeed making inroads in Congress. The headline "Tea Party Candidate Ousts Republican Favorite" has almost become a cliché, in fact -- it's hardly even news anymore. Some of these candidates win primary victories and are crushed in the general election, but not all of them. Some win office, and their ranks in Washington seem to be growing.
Now compare this to the Occupy movement. One might be excused for responding to that by thinking: "What Occupy movement? Are they still around? Really?" The Occupiers can boast today that they successfully fended off every attempt to co-opt them by the Democratic Party or any Democratic operatives or lobbying groups. The Occupiers have retained their fierce independence. They have also hewed religiously to the concept of "having no leaders." But where has it gotten them, really?
Can anyone point me to a news headline which says "Occupier Candidate Wins Primary, Ousts Democrat"? Or anything even remotely similar? While a few Democratic politicians were initially enthusiastic, there is no "Occupy Caucus" within Congress today. There is no "Occupy" agenda which is being worked on by sympathetic politicians. There may be some things Democratic politicians are attempting which the Occupiers agree with, but that's about as far as the connection goes.
While I rarely interject my own feelings into analytical columns like this, I will admit a certain sense of "what might have been" about the Occupy movement -- and a certain trepidation over the prospects of a more heavy Tea Party influence in Congress. This isn't an obituary for the Occupy movement, though -- I fully expect them to put on some demonstrations here and there, and occasionally manage to get themselves on the news radar. Some of what they do will be ignored, but some of what they do will indeed get their message out. But is that enough?
Look at where the Republican Party is today, with respect to the Tea Party. Republicans who hold office are downright terrified of being "primaried" by a Tea Party challenger. Because of this, they tack even further to the right than they ever have before, in an attempt to assuage angry hordes of voters who might kick them out of their cushy jobs. Now look at Democrats in comparison. Democrats aren't being pressured by Occupiers, because the Occupiers have chosen to reject the whole political system altogether. Democratic officeholders don't worry about placating the Occupiers, because the Occupiers aren't threatening them with dismissal, the way the Tea Partiers are with Republicans.
Not to be too glib, but in this story of two movements, two paths were taken. One group decided to work from within the existing political structure, and one chose not to. One group is pushing their agenda to the floors of Congress, and is having tangible influence on lawmaking and the political universe. The other group does not wield anything close to this type of influence, which likely will not change after the upcoming elections, either. To be blunt -- one group decided to throw a party in the streets, and one group moved in to occupy a major political party. To me, it is truly ironic that the Tea Party have become the occupiers of the Republican Party, while the Occupiers seem more concerned with putting on demonstrations akin to the original American Tea Party in Boston.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant