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Are Occupy Wall Street, Tea Party Signs of Building Populist Movements?

Occupy Wall Street demonstrator. File photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

What began in Manhattan more than three weeks ago with the rallying cry to “occupy Wall Street” has grown to become something more. The loosely organized liberal protest group has used social media to spread to scores of others cities — from Washington to San Diego to Missoula, Mont.

Many of the protests are shorter affairs — an afternoon of marching — and not the long-term “occupation” in New York’s Zuccotti Park. But the size and spread of the protests have caught the attention of media from across the spectrum – from The New York Times opinion pages to Forbes.com. Meanwhile, voices in the conservative Tea Party movement have offered their critiques.

But as many have noted already, however, when you look closely at the “Occupy Together” and Tea Party movements there are more than a few similarities. Both are loosely organized, both express anger toward groups in power and both are calling from complicated sets of big changes to help a country they feel is off track. Both groups, in short, bare the hallmarks of populist movements – or at least the beginnings of populist movements.

The movements do not come as a big surprise to Patchwork Nation. We have argued for some time that the United States is ripe for some kind of populist uprising in the next decade, due to ongoing economic and cultural shifts. And they may be just the beginning.

Why Now?

Much has been made of the recession and its affect on long-term unemployment, but as Patchwork Nation has noted, the recession has just exacerbated longer-term rises in economic inequality. Since 1980, seven of the 12 county types in Patchwork Nation have seen their median family incomes fall in inflation-adjusted dollars. The map below shows the changes by county.

As credit has dried up in the recession and unemployment and foreclosures have risen, those lower incomes have become more obvious.

And as Congress debates whether to raise taxes on the wealthy — either households making more than $250,000 or $1 million a year – it’s helpful to keep in mind just how few people fall into either of those categories. Nationally, only 4 percent of households earn more than $200,000 annually. In many of our 12 county types, far fewer make that kind of money.

Even in a very wealthy county like New York, N.Y., only 16 percent of households are in that group. And new Census data show that U.S. incomes have been falling even after the recession. Those facts will resonate as Washington debates how much to tax the wealthy. Add it all together and you have a recipe for populist movements.