The recent Occupy Wall Street protests have created an interesting counterpoint to the more established Tea Party protest movement. The rhetoric of left-right conflict seems to be infused with partisanship, but, given the populist, anti-establishment tenor of both groups, it’s ironic that their aims appear to have more in common than not. The real reason they are opposed in action is probably due more to perceived ideological differences, rather than party identity.
Partisanship is a win or lose proposition decided by electoral victory or defeat. Our national elections are more like the Superbowl of politics that have hardened over time into a permanent rivalry. Like the Yankees vs. the Red Sox, it’s always the blue team vs. the red team and to the victor go all the spoils. (Well, not really. Read on.)
Political ideology is a different beast that articulates and guides our philosophical principles of government. Political ideology has a long and violent history, especially in the 20th century. We had monarchy challenged by market capitalism and democracy, which, in turn, was buffeted by communism and socialism. With the failures of the extreme, non-democratic ideologies, modern democratic politics has been largely distilled down to a tug-of-war between pro-government and pro-business ideological factions, with the left being pro-government and the right pro-business. The point of confusion in our modern politics is that we have conflated political partisanship with ideology.
As populist movements, OWS and the TP are not really partisan driven, though they still are strongly ideological. But there is an inherent contradiction. As opposed to the dominant two party factions of pro-government and pro-business, populist movements are divided along class lines of establishment elites vs. the democratic public. The financial elites that both OWS and TP protestors oppose are in collusion with the political establishment of both parties, so choosing up sides according to party is counter-productive to the success of any anti-establishment movement. The Tea Party seems to have understood this better than the OWS protestors, but let’s give them a little time.
Naturally, any popular movement in a democracy is going to attract the interest of organized parties because there is power in numbers that can help neutralize money and influence. So, the Republicans court the Tea Party and the Democrats court the OWS protest. But populists should not be fooled. Party elites, with the aid of media elites, have every incentive to co-opt a populist movement to serve their own purposes, which is to reinforce the establishment’s status-quo, aka the Powers That Be.
So, what about the ideological divide? Populist movements really have no vested interest in pro-government or pro-business ideologies because these mostly serve the party elites. Rather one would expect a populist convergence on the ideological principles of individual freedom and democracy. These are the same governing principles that the designers of the US Constitution arrived at more than 200 years ago and they have served us well ever since. When you think about it, a pure pro-government or pro-business ideology has more in common with Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin or Mao than Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, MLK Jr. or Gandhi.
For the populists among us, the Superbowl analogy may make this more clear. It’s an orchestrated battle on the field. While the fans pay for the tickets, the advertising rights, and all the concessions, the two teams on the field, with their owners and media promoters, always walk off with all the money, no matter who wins or loses.
Not bad for a day’s work.