Can the Tea Party and Occupy Movements Find Common Ground?
Since the emergence of Occupy Wall Street last year and the subsequent rise of the Occupy movement in cities across America, many have viewed them as a liberal counterpart to the conservative Tea Party movement. But how accurate is that analysis?
UrbanFaith columnist Andrew Wilkes supports the Occupy movement’s “efforts to shift the public conversation from a narrow focus on deficits and a libertarian view of government and free markets to one that addresses income inequality and the easy translation of economic power into disproportionate political power on an international stage.” Rafael Rivadeneira, president of the Illinois Chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, shares “core beliefs of small/limited government, fiscal responsibility, constitutional adherence, free markets, personal responsibility and individual freedom” with the Tea Party movement. UrbanFaith posed a series of questions to both men in an effort to foster respectful dialogue and to explore areas of possible common ground. The pair answered the following questions, then were given the opportunity to respond to each other’s answers. The dialogue has been edited for length and clarity.
How Different Are They?
UrbanFaith: A Public Religion Research Institute poll that compared Tea Party supporters and Occupy supporters found some predictable differences between them. Among them are the fact that 85% of Tea Party supporters are white, one-third of whom are white evangelical Protestants, while 28% of Occupy supporters have no formal religious affiliation and a “sizeable minority” (37%) are people of color. Occupy supporters also tend to be considerably younger than Tea Party supporters. What do these statistics say to you? And, are there are areas of agreement between the two groups that might resonate with the 46% of respondents who said they didn’t identify with either movement?
Rivadeneira: A lot of people are fed-up with greed and waste. The Tea Partiers and the Occupiers are operating out of that same frustration, but Tea Partiers aim more at government greed and waste and Occupiers at corporate greed and waste. Of course, it’d be wonderful to see both the Tea Party and Occupy movement more diverse and representative of various races and ethnicities, religions and socio-economic standings, but I don’t believe that we need to look at these numbers and declare that one of these movements is more inclusive or more racist—or whatever wants to be said—than the other.
I’m a Hispanic Mainline Christian and I certainly don’t feel like an outcast based on any of that within the Tea Party. I’d imagine that a conservative white evangelical could say the same thing about the Occupy movement. When people agree on ideas and purpose, I’m not sure that race and religion get too much in the way. That the majority of Americans say neither movement resonates with them makes sense. Most Americans aren’t involved in politics and most Americans consider themselves “moderate.” Neither the Tea Party or the Occupiers are moderate positions, necessarily, and for the most part the members are active—or at least paying attention to—politics.
Wilkes: Many Americans are split between left-wing and right-wing populism. Chris Hedges, a former New York Times writer, tells a story about a veteran running for office in upstate New York that illustrates the point. He is frustrated by long-term unemployment, a fragile economic recovery, and the underwhelming performance of both political parties. Both movements, on one level, are an organized reaction to the perceived failure of established forms of dealmaking in our politics.
This poll, along with public opinion synthesis conducted by the Opportunity Agenda, suggests that many Americans share the three foregoing sentiments. The prognosis of each movement is different, but the diagnosis to some extent is shared – America needs to restore economic opportunity, particularly on the issue of jobs and education.
Rivadeneira: Absolutely. Consistently we have seen increased government regulation and the power of the teachers unions get in the way of economic and educational opportunity. There are many wonderful public schools, of course, and many wonderful teachers doing amazing work with few resources. However, I’m a big fan of charter schools and vouchers so that parents–ALL parents–have a choice in where their kids are educated. Choice in education leads to greater economic opportunities for individuals and communities.
Wilkes: Various communities within the Occupy movement are concerned with corruption and ineptitude within both the public and private sector, but especially the financial sector. Despite Rafael’s personal comfort within the Tea Party, many Latino-Americans are put off by the nativist language that the Republican party and Tea Parties have used in the past.
Theologically conservative white evangelicals may very well be comfortable within the Occupy movement. It is highly unlikely, however, that politically conservative white evangelicals will not feel like “outcasts” within the Occupy movement. The untold story of the Occupy movement is that progressive voices of faith–progressive here referring to politics and economics–are organizing within the broader movement.
Is Race a Factor?
UrbanFaith: Last fall, The Washington Post asked “why blacks aren’t embracing Occupy Wall Street” when it “might seem like a movement that would resonate with black Americans.” Why aren’t blacks occupying?
Rivadeneira: I can’t speak for the black community, but there are other ways to protest and fight injustice than by setting up tents and hanging in public parks.
Wilkes: Black folks are indeed occupying. There’s Occupy the Hood. Some are involved in various Occupy Faith movements across the country. More recently, Occupy the Dream represents a broad attempt by black church clergy to reinvigorate its tradition of social justice rooted in Jesus’ liberating ministry, the prophets, and so on. It is true however, that a small minority of African-Americans are involved in Occupying. But at every stage in American history, from the abolitionist and suffrage movements to the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements it has been small groups of folks dedicated to making social change happen, not the majority
Rivadeneira: Small groups make big differences.
Do Tea Partiers Harbor Racial Resentment?
UrbanFaith: In a report produced for the NAACP, The Institute for Research & Education on Human Reports found that white Tea Partiers are more likely than other whites to downplay the problems faced by African Americans. They also tend to hold negative opinions about African Americans’ work ethic. Almost three-quarters told pollsters that government programs aimed at providing a social safety net for poor people actually encourage them to remain poor. One-fourth said the Obama administration favors blacks over whites, and three-fourths said the president doesn’t understand the needs of people like them or “share the values most Americans try to live by.” What, if anything, do these statistics prove?
Rivadeneira: I’m not sure that the findings “prove” anything, but here’s my take on government programs: I certainly don’t believe that “too much has been made of the problems facing black people.” As a minority, I’m well aware of the racism that exists—and the issues that stem from groups of people believing you are “less than.” But I know that this racism doesn’t respect party lines. I’ve faced racism from Liberal Democrats and Conservative Republicans (and every sort of moderate) alike. So I’m not ready to support any claims that the Tea Party is racist. Certainly some Tea Partiers are. But so are some Occupiers.
As to government “safety nets,” while certainly there is a place for public assistance, the truth is: many politicians delight in keeping people dependent on government (in one way or the other) because it gives politicians tremendous power over their constituents. So often big-government promises are less about helping and more about keeping people under government’s thumb. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. This is why we get so much fear-mongering in politics. Politicians want people afraid of how they’ll suffer if there is less help from the government.
I realize that many communities or people have battles ahead of them that are harder than many will ever have to face—failing schools, desperate poverty, cycles of abuse. So we can’t ignore that. But nor should we think that more government is always the answer.
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