At a Republican candidate forum outside Fort Worth last week, a Tea Party activist turned Senate candidate proclaimed the Occupy Wall Street protesters “unemployed, uneducated and uninformed.” To which the conservative radio host moderating the panel added, mirthfully, “This is the first occupation many of these people have seen in years.”
More and more commentators — as well as President Obama — have likened the Occupy forces spreading across the country to the Tea Party movement. But as they have, conservatives and Tea Party activists have rushed to discredit the comparison and the nascent movement. They have portrayed the Occupy protesters as messy, indolent, drug-addled and anti-Semitic, circulated a photo of one of them defecating on a police car, and generally intimated that Democrats who embrace them are on a headlong road to Chicago 1968.
It is a culture war, young versus old, left versus right, communal food tables versus “Don’t Tread on Me” flags.
In fact, the two movements do share key traits. They emerged out of nowhere but quickly became potent political forces, driven by anxiety about the economy, a belief that big institutions favor the reckless over the hard-working, grievances that are inchoate and even contradictory, and an insistence that they are “leaderless.” “End the Fed” signs — and even some of those yellow Gadsden flags — have found a place at Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street protests alike.
Where they differ is in where they place the blame. While Occupy forces find fault in the banks and super-rich, the Tea Party movement blames the government for the economic calamity brought on by the mortgage crisis, and sees the wealthy as job creators who will lift the country out of its economic malaise. To them, the solution is less regulation of banks, not more.
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey declared Monday, “If you told the Occupy Wall Street people and the Tea Party people that they are the same, they would hit you.”
Not quite. But Tea Party activists are indeed fighting the comparisons.
“They seem to be more in favor of anarchy than they are in favor of working out problems through the Constitution,” Jenny Beth Martin, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, said about the Occupy forces.
“We have worked very hard to be respectful of the laws,” she said in an interview. “We protest and complain, but we’re also trying to work within the system. It’s frustrating to watch people who have an utter lack of respect for our form of government.”
Tea Party Patriots issued a statement last week titled, “Occupy Wall Street? They’re No Tea Partiers.” Tea Party supporters, it argued, were the ones who “have stood firmly on principle.”
“They believe freedom from government allows entrepreneurs to try new things, see what works and discard what doesn’t,” it continued. “They don’t believe corporations are inherently evil, or that bankers should be beheaded.”
By contrast, it portrayed Occupy protesters as freeloaders, or would-be freeloaders: “Those occupying Wall Street and other cities, when they are intelligible, want less of what made America great and more of what is damaging to America: a bigger more powerful government to come in and take care of them so they don’t have to work like the rest of us who pay our bills.”
Certainly one reason that conservatives do not like the comparison is that Democrats and unions have eyed the Occupy movement as a vehicle for energizing the left in the 2012 elections.
On Tuesday, President Obama, the man Tea Partiers love to loathe, made the link, telling ABC News that the Occupy protests are “not that different from some of the protests we saw coming from the Tea Party.”
“Both on the left and the right I think that people feel separated from their government,” he said. “They feel their institutions aren’t looking out for them.”
Conservative media outlets have accused the “mainstream media” of paying the Occupy movement too much attention, but have themselves covered it extensively — mostly to argue that it is made up of sloppy, angry socialists.
The Daily Caller jubilantly noted Monday that the Nazi Party of America had endorsed the Occupy movement. Big Journalism, another conservative Web site, published a collection of photographs showing defaced flags and cars at Occupy protests, as well as signs urging an end to aid to Israel, which the Web site used to argue the anti-Semitism of the new movement.
There is a through-the-looking glass element to some of the criticism. The Daily Caller reported that based on photographs, the Occupy forces were almost exclusively white (numerous studies and polls have shown the Tea Party, too, has proportionately few members of minority groups).
The Tea Party, too, was vague about its frustrations in its early days, or contradictory, as in the sign at one rally that was cited as evidence that the Tea Party itself was uneducated and uninformed: “Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicare.”
At Tea Party protests you could find the kind of one-off cranks that conservatives have found at Occupy rallies — Tea Party organizers would explain them as fringe-y interlopers. (Those Obama-as-Hitler posters, they noted, were the work of Lyndon LaRouche supporters, not Tea Party activists.)
And similarly, conservative criticism of Occupy protests has not always held up. Lu Busse, a Tea Party leader in Colorado, claimed on Facebook that two Occupy Denver protesters died from heroin overdoses last week. In fact, city officials said, there had been no overdose deaths in Denver all month.
Some Occupy demonstrators seemed more willing to express some commonality with — and even some admiration for — the Tea Party.
Lin Wefel, an Occupy supporter at Zuccotti Park, where the protests began, said she had attended a Tea Party event in Pennsylvania and thought the missions of the two movements coincided “80 percent.”
“They want jobs, fair wages, get the money out of the system — the same things we want,” she said.
Kate Linker, another protester, said that while the two movements agreed that the system was not working, they disagreed on how it should work. She, for instance, was soliciting signatures for petitions to renew the New York State millionaires tax and establish one federally — not a cause most Tea Party activists are likely to support.
Still, she said, Occupy does aspire to have as strong an impact on the national discussion as the Tea Party has had.
So far, most Americans do not align with either movement. In a USA Today/Gallup poll taken last weekend, 26 percent of those polled said they were supporters of the Occupy movement, while 19 percent identified as opponents, and 52 percent said they neither supported nor opposed it. Meanwhile, 22 percent said they were supporters of the Tea Party, 27 percent said they were opponents, and 47 percent said they were neither.
But the large majority — 63 percent — said they did not know enough about the Occupy goals to say whether they approved or disapproved. In the early days of the Tea Party movement, a similarly large percentage did not know much about it.
Conservatives are trying to define the Occupy protesters before the protesters define themselves.
Ed Morrissey, writing in The Week, insisted that the Occupy movement wants “seizures and redistributions, which necessarily means more bureaucracies, higher spending, and many more opportunities for collusion between authorities and moneyed interests in one way or another.”
Still, he acknowledged that it resembled the Tea Party movement in some respects.
Ms. Martin, of Tea Party Patriots, said the next year would determine whether more Americans agree with the Occupy forces or the Tea Party.
“That’s what the whole election comes down to,” she said, “what direction do we think America’s going to go in, and what’s the proper size and scope of government.”
Anne Barnard contributed reporting.