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Occupy versus the Tea Party

October 28th, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized by

In the last few weeks the ‘Occupy’ protests have developed from one protest in New York to a global movement, with similar protests appearing globally. The protesters in New York and elsewhere seem to be broadly in favour of less corporate influence over government and oppose the special treatment government shows financial services. Across the world these occupy protesters have adopted an anti market rhetoric which emphasises the disparity of income and the lack of regulation which caused the current financial crisis as primary motivations.

Ironically the occupy protests have a lot in common with another recent American protest movement: the Tea Party. Both the Occupy protesters and Tea Party activists argue for an end to corporate welfare, and for a more transparent and honest political environment. Given that both groups have important similarities it is worth examining why the Occupy movement has spread globally, while the Tea Party movement remains to be copied.

Political narrative and economic rhetoric are both at the heart of why a movement like the Tea Party has not emerged outside of the United States, and why it is unlikely one ever will.

In the United States there is a history of movements like the Tea Party emerging; what has developed in the last few years in America is not unique. The American political culture is conducive to those who believe in individual liberties and free markets, and Americans have a narrative which has at its focus a return to classical liberal roots, which most other countries cannot boast. Tea Party activists are able to play on the reverence almost all Americans have, regardless of their political affiliation, to the Founding Fathers and the spirit of the American Revolution. As the Tea Party developed it became more political and broadened its remit from taxation and economic policy to values and virtues. It was not long before guns and god, two of the three big Gs of American politics, began to feature heavily in Tea Party rallies and events. It is this distinct American flavour which has confined the Tea Party to the United States.

In both America and the rest of the world big government activists have had rhetoric on their side. To make the case for redistribution and increased regulation is easier than making the classical liberal case. Words like ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ have more emotive pull than ‘freedom’ and ‘individualism’. It is easier to convince people of the need to tax the rich more in order to save public services than to make the case for reductions in public spending and lowering taxes. While the cause of the financial crisis is an incredibly complicated matter, arguing that the crisis being a direct result of too little regulation and government oversight is simple and convincing.

The best hope for the classical liberal movement has to be in shifting the economic rhetoric, through discussion and education. When I was at the Occupy protest last week in London I was struck by how many of the protesters believed that advocating the divorce of government and the private sector was incompatible with the free market position. A worrying number of the protesters believed that a support of free markets entailed a support of huge corporations and businesses and the favours they receive from government. It is unrealistic to hope that a movement like the Tea Party will emerge in the UK. In fact a Tea Party movement in the UK would almost certainly be damaging to classical liberals, as such a movement would inevitably become seen as a conservative pressure group. However, through direct dialogue and education classical liberals can show the Occupy protesters and those who support them how a free market system and limited government will not only deliver a safer and more responsible financial service sector, but will do far more to alleviate poverty, promote peace, improve standards of living, and increase social mobility than any government program or mass redistribution of wealth.

Matthew Feeney is a member of the Liberal Democrats and a former staff member at Liberal Democrat Headquarters.

Some tea, a party atmosphere... But this is no Tea Party.

4 Responses to “Occupy versus the Tea Party”

  1. Tristan Says:

    I am really glad the tea party will not emerge here. It may have started out with some liberarians involved, but it has been completely coopted by the Republican Party at its worst.
    It pays lip service to smaller government whilst calling for bigger government in the form of military, immigration controls and punishment of those they dissaprove of.
    Some of its members are almost openly fascist – just an american version which plays lip service to freedom (actually didn’t Mussolini talk about freedom?).

    No, the Tea Party is not something to be welcomed by any sort of liberal.

    As for the occupy movement, yes, they’ve swallowed the capitalist propaganda that the current state of affairs is a natural consequence of the free market, but that’s to be expected, its what we’re told every day by left and right.


  2. anticorruption Says:

    you are very wrong about what the T party is all about suggest you do your research properly and investigate its funders the Koch billionaire brothers see George Monbiot Guardian to start with.


  3. Tom Papworth Says:

    @Tristan: I share your concerns about the Tea Party. Sadly, I think that this reflects a real confusion in the minds of many people. For one thing, they do not view big government and high taxation as inherently bad or misguided; rather, they think much of what government does is bad or misguided.

    That is why conservatives, who talk a good talk on slimming down government but are blindfolded on defence, policing and immigration (as well as areas such as infrastructure and planning), are so successful.

    Having said all that, I think we need to distinguish the original, spontaneous Tea Party movement of 2009, that grew up in oppostion to obesity taxes, healthcare reforms and much of the fiscal and monetary stimulus of the late Bush/early Obama era, from the later, politicised Tea Party that welcomed the likes of Sarah Palin in and now fields candidates.

    I’d welcome a spontaneous government-skeptic organisation; I just don’t want it to become a populist front. (And yes, Mussolini did use “freedom”, but then most politicians do!).

    “the capitalist propaganda that the current state of affairs is a natural consequence of the free market” [emphasis added]

    I think I know where you’re going with this, but I’d like to hear more

    @anticorruption: I think that Matthew has done his research very well. I refer you to my distinction above in response to Tristan: Koch may fund the Tea Party now but he wasn’t there are the inception.

    And I would not recommend anybody go to George Monbiot as a source for anything. Except, perhaps, fertilizer!


  4. Matthew Says:

    I apologize in the delay in responding to these comments, but better late than never.

    @tristan: I am afraid I do not quite understand the use of the word ‘fascism’ in your comments. While there is no doubt a wide variety of political ideologies at play in the Tea Party, I think that fascism is lacking. I have not heard any Tea Party representative advocate for the US military to be used as a political arm in order to forge a national identity, and thankfully in the US fascism has never taken off as a popular political ideology.

    A lot of Republicans have, as you imply, taken advantage of a popular movement to push for populist policies like an aggressive foreign policy and restrictions on immigration. In this the Tea Party is far from unique in both the US and other countries. What is telling is that the Tea Party very much took off in response to the healthcare debate. Taxation to pay for Obamacare were of secondary concern to the role government would play once Obamacare was enshrined in law.

    @anticorruption: I cannot add anything to what Tom discussed above, except to mention that it is worth (whenever you might have the chance) to either go to a Tea Party rally or visit the websites which are used to organize events. There are literally hundreds of these, central control is hard to find. I would only add in conclusion my endorsement of Tom’s take on George Monbiot.


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