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The Tea Party Flourishes, Progressives Flounder, Wall Street Wins

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"More than four in 10, 41%, of respondents said they had a very or somewhat favorable view of the Tea Party movement, while 24% said they had a somewhat or very negative view of the group. ....Meanwhile, the Democratic Party, which controls both the White House and Congress, has a 35% positive rating compared with a 45% negative rating....The Republican Party identifies closest to the Tea Party movement's ideology, but the group has also caused splits within the GOP. Republicans currently hold a 28% favorability rating compared with a 43% negative one." Wall Street Journal

During every great economic upheaval a populist revolt emerges against the people and the institutions most perceived to have wrecked the economy. It usually comes in left and right flavors.

In the 1930s for example, all manner of progressives, socialists and communists argued for massive reforms and even the wholesale transformation of capitalism. The right wing populists, so very fond of fascism, attacked the wealthy often using anti-Semitism as the causal explanation - that the crisis was caused by an international Jewish conspiracy of bankers.

In Europe a virtual civil war broke out between left and right. Even Brooklyn featured street fights between Nazis and Communists during the 1930s as the fiery radio preacher, Father Couglin, spewed anti-Semitic, anti-capitalist, anti-Roosevelt vitriol over the airwaves.

But the progressive upsurge captured our national debate during the Great Depression. A consensus emerged that we needed a mixed economy where government would police the financial sector, constrain the distribution of wealth and aid working people enhance their standard of living through labor laws, unionization and federal job programs.

Not this time around.... so far. During our current Great Recession, the Tea Party folks rule the roost. There is no massive left response. In fact the nearly all of the revulsion against the economic collapse and bailouts for the super-rich is captured and expressed by the Tea Party. Their recent poll numbers cited above, however fleeting, are astounding. There's no progressive formation that could even be placed onto a poll.

Why?

You can't pin this on some mysterious domestic malaise that somehow impacts progressives only while leaving the Tea Partyites fired up and raring to go. No dispirited diatribes about too much consumerism or debt or TV or Internet porn can explain away the failure of progressivism. We have to look deeper and soon.

As labor activist Mark Dudzic points out, the Tea Party has at least one big advantage: It's backed by an extremely large and powerful amplification system in the form of Fox News. Of course, the left has Huffington Post, AlterNet, Air America and a few other outlets. But as yet they don't match the wattage of Fox and Rush.

The Tea Party also has a very clear message - the problem is big government, big business, and corrupt politicians. Sure, when you push on their program, it's full of contradictions, like how to control big business without a government that can match Wall Street's strength. But the Tea Party expresses the fury of Americans who have watched the financial elites rip off the economy, then crash it, then cash in on government bailouts, and then commence to rip off the economy all over again. It sure does look las if the federal government is aiding and abetting the very people who crashed the system while tens of millions go without work.

Finally, the Team Party is passionate. Its activists are willing to express their anger. They are not worried about offending the elites or sounding shrill. They don't care if they cripple Obama or sink the Republicans. They're just venting as loud and as hard as they can. They believe in what they're saying even when it makes no sense.

So why aren't we hearing more from progressives? After all, this is the perfect time to build a progressive populist response in behalf of Main Street against Wall Street.

First of all, it's considerably harder to be positive than negative. This means we have to know what we stand for and clearly articulate it without sounding like policy wonks. Right now, we're all over the place. Ask any two progressives what they stand for and you'll get three different answers. Do we want more regulation on banks or do we want to break them up? Do we want to nationalize them or return them to private investors? Do we want salary caps for all financial institutions or just the ones with TARP money? Do we want the Federal Reserve abolished or reformed? Do we want more stimulus or direct jobs creation?

Not only don't we have a clear cut agenda, but we are unwilling to break with the Democrats and they know it. The Tea Party folks have no trouble trashing Republicans who stand in their way. But we are far more entwined with the Obama administration and with all levels of the Democratic Party. So our message is restrained for fear of hurting the Democrats and aiding the Republicans. We act like inside players not movement leaders.

The muted message also comes across as a lack of passion, especially on economic issues. Many of us seem willing to fight hard on environmental and social issues, and so we should. But we don't have the same fire in the belly when it comes to jobs and economic reforms.

There is one more critical difference that we should not underestimate: Our new billionaire bailout society is not threatened by the Tea Party. In fact, the Tea Party's anti-government, anti-regulatory call is precisely what Wall Street wants: the less government interference, the more profits and bonuses. Also, the Tea Party is not calling for pay caps, or financial transactions taxes or jobs programs or the return to Glass-Steagall. Wall Street can live with their rabble rousing rhetoric.

Yes, the Tea Party opposes the bailouts that are making Wall Street fatter than ever. But our financial dons know that too big to fail is entrenched national policy. The bailout money will be there when needed.

Progressive ideas, however, could be more threatening to the established order, should we dare to get our act together. What if Arianna Huffington's populist call to move our money out of the big banks caught on? What if a coalition of progressive groups and unions formed to fight for a new hard-hitting anti-Wall Street, pro-Main Street agenda? What if progressives of all stripes found a way to bolt from the two major political parties?

Dream on? Maybe. But, until progressives build something bolder and more visible, Wall Street can sip tea and sleep tight.

Les Leopold is the author of The Looting of America: How Wall Street's Game of Fantasy Finance destroyed our Jobs, Pensions and Prosperity, and What We Can Do About It, Chelsea Green Publishing, June 2009.