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Woodruff: Comparing Wall Street Protesters to the Tea Party

Fair or not, I keep comparing this week’s protests on Wall Street and against corporate interests across the country with the tea party movement that first gained national attention in late 2008 and early 2009. We watched back in the waning months of the Bush administration and early days of Obama’s term as a few disgruntled folks — and then, larger and larger groups of citizens — gathered to vent about how much the government was spending. One of the chief complaints was the law passed in 2008 that brought the $700 billion federal bailout of big banks that had contributed to the subprime mortgage crisis.

At the time, most tea party members and their sympathizers declined to identify with either major political party, saying neither represented them. But eventually, polls and research showed over two-thirds of tea party supporters consider themselves conservative. Just 8 percent called themselves Democrats in a Gallup poll in March of 2010, compared to one-third of all U.S. adults.

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Their goals evolved, meanwhile, to incorporate opposition to President Obama’s economic stimulus plan and his health care reform law. Even as they were divided into different tea party organizations, their sum total was a potent force coalescing behind Republican congressional candidates. The proof of their effectiveness came in GOP victories in the November 2010 mid-terms.

As I watch the protests this past week in New York and other cities, I listen for the central complaints that draw these new crowds together. Two reporters covering the “Occupy Wall Street” movement told me on the NewsHour Monday that demonstrators seem united largely by a sense that no one in power is listening to them. Arun Venugopal of WNYC Radio told me that “they feel like corporate interests really take precedence over the voices of the masses. And they’re trying to change that.” Julie Shapiro, with DNAinfo.com, a site that closely covers local news in New York City, said, “You have people who are squatting in apartments in Brooklyn who have lost their jobs and in danger of being evicted. You have college students from Pennsylvania who are concerned about the war in Iraq and the — America’s dependence on oil. So you have a huge range from one end of the spectrum to the other. But what they really share is a sense that the political system is not serving their needs.”

It’s possible to draw a direct line from some of these complaints to those of the early bank bailout protesters, who argued that huge corporations don’t deserve taxpayer-funded dollars. But they’re defined more by their differences. Whereas the tea party masses of 2009 and 2010 were angry at government, today’s demonstrators believe there’s a role for government to play in addressing the inequality that angers them. They just don’t see government stepping up to fulfill it.

It’s too simplistic to call them the anti-tea party. We’ll have to wait a little longer, listen to them harder, before we figure out who they are and what they mean to change.

Photo by Jackie Weir.

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