Despite surface differences, so the narrative goes, Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party are essentially kindred movements. They spring from similar impulses, are symptoms of the same disease. As the Washington Post's Marc Fisher excitedly reported in an essay published on Sunday:
Although many organizers of the two populist efforts view their counterparts from the other end of the spectrum as misguided or even evil, attitudes among the rank and file of the tea party and Occupy Wall Street are often much more accepting and flexible. They start out with different views about the role of government, but in interviews and online discussions they repeatedly share many of the same frustrations, as well as a classically American passion for fixing the system.
In another report filed on Sunday, NPR staff writers reached the same conclusion: "At both Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party protests," NPR wrote, "you might hear similar opinions on the 2008 bank bailout, the federal deficit and government spending, and the influence of corporations and money on Congress."
NPR went on to seek an explanation of the sudden outburst of populist rage from Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig, author of a new book, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress -- and a Plan to Stop It. "Anyone who knows anything about campaigns," Lessig told NPR, "knows it's the people who contribute the maximum in a campaign that have the real power in Washington."
Conflation of the two movements, however, obscures vital distinctions, without which the history of post-Great Recession America becomes unintelligible. Despite recent benefactors, occupy Wall Street remains a bottom-up movement. Their accumulation of $300,000, as well as storage space loaded with donated supplies in lower Manhattan, constituted major news a week ago.
For the Tea Party, on the other hand, the horse followed the cart. Two organizations, Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, forged an infrastructure that was ready-made by the time the Tea Party emerged in the media a mass movement. Think Progress reported in April of 2009 that FreedomWorks employees were coordinating conference calls among protesters. The same reports also revealed that FreedomWorks purchased domain addresses and even designed signs, talking points and sample press releases for use by protesters and local organizations. Americans For Prosperity, meanwhile, took over the planning of early Tea Party events in New Jersey, Arizona, New Hampshire, Missouri and Kansas, as well as several other states.
If one were to search out the folks who, according to Lessig's criteria, "have real power in Washington," FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity would be a fruitful place to start. FreedomWorks was founded by Jack Kemp, the 1996 Republican vice-presidential nominee, and Dick Armey, the former House Republican leader-turned-lobbyist. Obviously, neither are new to insider-politics; neither is their organization, which played a significant public relations role in George W. Bush's 2005 push to privatize social security. Americans for Prosperity is funded heavily by the Koch Family Foundations; Tax records unearthed in a 2010 New Yorker profile of the Koch brothers revealed that in 2008 the three main Koch family foundations donated to 34 political and policy organizations.
Similarities between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street certainly exist on a micro level -- but they are hardly big-picture. The Occupy Wall Street movement has been criticized for a dearth of substantive proposals, but it hardly takes a political scientist (or a Harvard law professor) to figure out that, without major financial leverage, navigating a broken legislative system would prove borderline-impossible for a mass of outsiders whose commitment to disorganization is a matter of design. Koch Industries and the other major funders of the Tea Party led the charge in donating to Republican candidates in 2010. In 2012, any "Occupy Wall Street candidates" will need to self-identify. Both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street may declaim against those whom they view as the powers-that-be, but only one of the two movements was birthed by those self-same power brokers.