The Tea Party Movement was a surprise to nearly everyone, especially to the people who set it loose. It began in mundane fashion. A far-right interest group funded by the Koch brothers initiated protests in the wake of the Obama inauguration and coordinated coverage of the events with Fox News. The protests almost immediately took on a life of their own and Dr. Frankenstein has been struggling to steer the monster ever since.
Occupy Wall Street started out as just another protest. Activists with the Canadian leftist publisher Adbusters planned to stage an "occupation" of the Chase Plaza in New York's financial district to express the usual outrage at greed, capitalism, injustice and... whatever. Bring your own puppets and guitars. No mimes, please.
Both groups' popularity followed a similar arc, gaining broad initial sympathy which steadily hardened into the usual partisan ruts. Where the two groups differ most starkly is in the impact they've experienced.
Occupy Wall Street is little more than a footnote, having failed to wield any noticeable influence in democratic politics. The effort never got past "the opportunity to air societal grievances as carnival." Its brand was deftly co-opted by the establishment left. They adopted its cool slogan while relegating the OWS figures themselves to the Island of misfit activists where they sit stewing in their fetid tents.
The Tea Party, on the other hand, spread through the Republican biosphere like the zombie virus from The Walking Dead. Why would a party dominated by a conservative ideology -- an ideology that values tradition, business interests, and slow, organic change be so much more vulnerable to a small corps of dedicated wingnuts than a party packed with leftists, environmentalists, vegetarians, university professors and elitist snobs who ride the subway?
Although generally more fragmented and undisciplined than Republicans, why are Democrats more successful at containing the influence of their wildest activists? What is the origin of the crazy gap between the parties and will the gap ever close?
Expanding wealth and personal freedom are eroding the social capital institutions that once served, among other things, to moderate our politics. This is a national, perhaps even global phenomenon that affects both of our political parties.
What has set Democratic politics apart from the dynamics of the Republican Party is their lingering domination by two major forces of the old order -- unions and black churches. Both unions and the churches are crumbling right along with the other pillars of our social capital infrastructure, but for a variety of reasons their influence is waning at a slower pace than many other institutions.
The unions in particular have a purpose, revenue stream and membership base independent of (though overlapping with) the Democratic Party. Though their membership is in steady decline, it remains massive in grassroots political terms, easily the largest organized block in American politics. It has a tight leadership structure capable of disciplining its ranks and its interests are relatively broad compared to groups like the Sierra Club or National Right to Life. It was unions in particular that hijacked the momentum of the Occupy Movement from the anarchists and career protestors that got it started.
The black churches have a similar profile. Their numbers are much smaller than the unions, but their discipline and geographic concentration give them a unique capacity to cultivate local power. Their interests are much broader than racial justice leaving them, like the unions, open to appeals to pragmatism. They are more driven by community interests than ideological agendas.
Though Democrats draw electoral support from a motley coalition ranging from affluent progressives to socially conservative blue-collar workers, it's the unions and black churches that comprise the core of the party's ground game. A quarter of Democratic convention delegates in 2008 were union members -- 10 percent from teachers' unions alone. Another quarter of the delegates were African American (compared to 1.5 percent at the RNC).
Republicans have no similar organizational firewalls. There are two forces that wield nationwide, multi-interest influence inside the Republican Party. The most important is the loose network of fundamentalist churches and their satellites. They are the only interest that can mobilize a national force of grassroots volunteers for conservatives. The modern GOP is dominant where they are numerous and weak where they are thin.
Unlike the unions, the religious right is fragmented, undisciplined and disorganized. Their disinterest in reason and their fascination with the end of the world make it tough to dissuade them from pointless and destructive policies. It is difficult to mobilize them politically through any means beyond escalating extremist rhetoric and appeals to fear.
The other force on the right is a small cadre of wealthy donors, mostly business and industrial elites. They dominate the donor base, but their influence at the grassroots is weak and declining. They find themselves in an escalating cycle of spending more to achieve less. With the exception of the Koch brothers and a few other odd characters, they are relatively pragmatic, but they are at the mercy of religious extremists on the ground that they are increasingly unable to contain.
Neither group is in a position to blunt the extremes. The religious wing doesn't want to and the business wing can't. Without some institutional base to provide a moderating influence on the grassroots and with the local networks of social capital drying up, the Republican Party is becoming a dangerous, though immensely entertaining catastrophe.
With both unions and black churches in steady decline, how long can Democrats hold off similar assaults from their irrational left flank? It's impossible to say, but we can be confident that the tipping point is approaching. What will our politics look like when we're forced to choose between a Tea Party candidate in a Ben Franklin costume and an OWS faux-anarchist with an iPhone in his raised fist?