By now millions of people know about how the Occupy Wall Street Movement has spread to dozens of cities. OWS has gone viral on the Internet and people know that thousands of committed progressives are lending their bodies to a movement that challenges a basic premise of American society: fundamental social inequality. Pundits have either dismissed OWS or have applauded its social, economic and cultural significance. People wonder what social and political impact will OWS have? Will its core set of radical ideals be co-opted? Will this social movement have an impact similar to the sweeping cultural revolution of the late 1960s?
Although these questions are fascinating, I wonder if our concentration on them and on the ongoing OWS movement is not diverting our attention from an emerging Republican/Tea Party political culture? When anthropologists conduct research, we attempt to understand human behavior, including, of course political behavior, by living among the people we are attempting to understand.
How can you understand human behavior?
One of my mentors gave me this advice: "First you have to listen to what people say, but to really understand human behavior, you have to watch what people do."
What are Tea Party/Republicans saying? Well, we've been getting an earful of scary and mean-spirited statements from the Republican Presidential hopefuls. Putative front-runner Herman Cain says that OWS is a bunch of anti-American, anti-capitalist complainers who blame the rich for their dissatisfaction. Cain suggests that rather than blaming the rich, the OWS people should blame themselves for their economic and social misfortune. Other less bombastic Republic Presidential hopefuls have said that OWS people are engaging in "class warfare" or "mob" behavior. All of these Republican/Tea Party rhetoricians, of course, are attempting to deflect attention from the fundamental inequalities of our society. They don't want people dwelling on the fact that America is not the land of equal opportunity or that the Tea Party/ Republicans represent the narrow and greedy interests of an emerging group of economic royalists.
Such rhetoric makes for good news and has been widely reported, which means that we know about Republican/Tea Party rhetorical smokescreens. If we look beyond the bombastic rhetoric, what are Tea Party/Republican officials, who now control the House of Representatives, attempting to do? The scenario is sobering. There is a major attack on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Tea Party/GOP thinks EPA regulations kill jobs. And so they have passed legislation that would cripple the regulatory enforcement of the federal government in any number of important domains. The results of this deregulatory fervor would, according to the EPA and environmentalists, threaten the quality of our air, water and food. When we add to this assault on regulation, the GOP/Tea Party attack on voter registration, you get the picture. First, on the federal level, you help your corporate buddies through "regulatory reform." Second, on the state level, in the name of voter fraud, which the legal record suggests is quite minimal, you pass voting registration statutes that make it difficult for minorities to register to vote, ensuring, or so it is hoped, Tea Party/Republican control of local and state governments, which, of course makes it easier to gain control of the federal government. If that works, the Tea Party/Republicans would love to undermine the New Deal and all the federal protections that have ensured a remarkable quality of life here in America.
That is a sketch of an emerging Tea Party/Republican culture. It is a chilling scenario that is being quietly enacted statute by statute. If OWS energy is not somehow converted into political, and indeed, electoral power, the energy of this inspiring social movement may quickly dissipate as the message of social inequality gets swept away by an electoral tidal wave.
It is wonderful to welcome a new, potentially powerful player in to the game of politics. There have been teach-ins, general assemblies, OWS newspapers, creative message-making, democratic consensus and much more, but in the political arena, if take your eye off the ball you're likely to strike out.