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It’s hard to say exactly when the Occupy Wall Street movement fizzled, but so far it has failed to become the politically potent force that the tea party was during the 2010 election cycle.
But even if the Occupy movement has not yet broadened its appeal or redefined our politics, it could still be a factor in 2012. The question, of course, is what kind of factor?
Occupy Wall Street has not established itself as a working-class or middle-class political movement of average Americans frustrated by government’s failures. Still largely decentralized, without financial muscle and not yet focused on campaigns or eolections, it isn’t even a pale reflection of the tea party last cycle.
“The tea party in 2010 was a political movement; it was Republicanism on steroids. Occupy Wall Street, on the other hand, isn’t a political movement. It’s a symptom of all the angst that middle-class Americans feel,” one Democratic strategist argued recently.
And yet, polls show that Americans have very similar — indeed, almost identical — reactions to both movements.
An Oct. 31 through Nov. 3 Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 43 percent of Americans support the tea party movement while 44 percent oppose it. At the same time, 44 percent said they support Occupy Wall Street and 41 percent oppose it.
At this point, it seems unlikely that the Occupy movement will ever have the clout that tea party groups achieved. Unlike the tea party, which succeeded in presenting itself as a movement of angry taxpayers, senior citizens and middle-class Americans, the Occupy movement has not evolved beyond its leftist roots.
Just take a look at the symbols and rhetoric of the movement. Words and phrases such as “oppression,” “the crimes of Wall Street,” “social injustice,” “solidarity forever,” “corporate manipulation of the agriculture system” and the “fight to reclaim democracy from the banks” are used the way they were by protesters in the 1960s. Hunger strikes and protest marches are back, and the clenched fist is the image of the movement, again echoing the 1960s.
Of course, it isn’t surprising that a movement relying primarily on college students and professors, anti-globalization activists, anarchists, professional protesters and a very small slice of organized labor hasn’t become a potent electoral force.
While Republicans can breathe a sigh of relief that the Occupy movement has not succeeded in appealing to working-class and middle-class swing voters, savvy GOP strategists understand that those same politically important voters are worried about some of the concerns raised by the Occupy movement — the economy, the lack of jobs, the seeming excesses of Wall Street and their own feelings of powerlessness.
Economic populism is still an effective weapon for the White House and Congressional Democrats, and Republicans may well play into Democrats’ hands if the GOP handles issues such as the extension of the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance ineptly, as it has done so far.
Republicans who simply dismiss the concerns of working-class voters and reject lower payroll taxes unless they are offset with spending cuts don’t have a clue how voters view Congress or how they feel.
Perhaps surprisingly, the OWS movement is a potentially bigger problem for Democrats, many of whom can’t quite figure out how to deal with a movement that reflects some of their concerns about economic inequality, environmentalism and the evils of big business but too often appears radical, confrontational and unkempt.
Democrats now face the same problem on their left that the GOP has been facing for the past couple of years with those on its right.
Where Republican Reps. Steve King (Iowa) and Joe Walsh (Ill.) seemed to echo tea party sentiments and rhetoric no matter how impolitic, impolite or mindless, now it is those on the left, such as Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Democratic Reps. Keith Ellison (Minn.), Barbara Lee (Calif.) and Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), who have been outspoken in their sympathy, or even support, for the Occupy movement, no matter how confrontational, crude and rude the behavior of protesters.
While the Occupy movement is likely to show up at the Democratic and Republican conventions in Charlotte and Tampa respectively, activists will potentially be more disruptive in Charlotte.
Republicans can easily dismiss the Occupy crowd as a bunch of radicals, and the more confrontational the protesters look, the better the Republican view will appear.
Democrats will be in an inherently more awkward position, because the party and the Occupy activists will be blaming corporations, the banks, Wall Street and the wealthy for taking advantage of the “little guy” and for refusing to pay their fair share.
The Democratic National Convention, of course, will be held in the Time Warner Cable Arena. The city’s football stadium, where President Barack Obama could give his acceptance speech, is Bank of America Stadium.
Charlotte is Bank of America’s corporate headquarters, along with Duke Energy and Goodrich, the former rubber and tire company that now calls itself “a global leader in the aerospace, defense and homeland security markets” on its website.
You get the picture. There will be plenty of opportunities and venues for OWS activists to make statements about the country — statements which could well make some Democrats very uncomfortable.
The Charlotte convention managers, the party’s Congressional leadership and, most importantly, the White House will have to figure out how to deal with Occupy Wall Street in a way that echoes some of the message without elevating the group and forcing the Democratic Party to either totally reject or embrace the OWS movement, and all that that includes.
It will be a delicate balancing act.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.