Monday, October 10, 2011

Populism: Left, Right and Center

There are remarkable similarities between the Tea Party Movement and the Occupy Wall Street protests. Yes, there are cavernous differences as well, but both movements are touching important public nerve endings.

First, both groups are suspicious of "the machine." For Tea Party adherents, the machine is an over-bloated, under-accountable, out-of-control federal government. Critical Constitutional liberties and national values are being scorned in favor of a soft totalitarianism. The Occupy Wall Street communities see the machine a "corporate greed", especially in the banking and finance industries. Where is all the bailout money that was supposed to help the "average citizen"? Billions of federal dollars are in the banks and few regular folks have enjoyed any real assistance.

There is much in common here: both groups are (rightly) suspicious of the Corporate State. 20th century history is filled with Communist, Fascist and even "democratic" regimes that established control by cutting deals with their favorite magnates, even as they proclaimed themselves the champions of the middle and working classes. For the Left, Apple Computer, Progressive Insurance and General Electric are OK, but any oil companies, smokestack industries or most banks are the epitome of evil. For the Right, the Federal Reserve, IRS and supporters of the anti-corporate agitiator (President Obama) are enemies of liberty and economic progress.

Second, both groups agitate publicly and are accused by their opponenets of being extremists. While there are a few "nut jobs" and professional agitators in both groups, the way particular media outlets portray these demonstrations is interesting. Tea Party folks are labeled racist, far-right, uncivil and much more by the left-leaning academic and media personalities. According to the Right, the Occupy Wall Street groups are communistic, socialistic and full of hypocritical leaders who endorse the protests while jetting off to foreign vacations.

There is a third similarity: both groups are deeply frustrated with systems that unethically enrich a few at the expense of the many. The Tea part folks ask why all politicians are wealthier after their "public service" and call for benefit and pension reform as well as fiscal responsibility. The Occupy Wall Street groups call out corporate and financial beneficiaries of government largesse. Why are executives getting huge bonuses while their companies still owe the texpayers?

There are differences between these groups as well. Occupy Wall Street has the tacit support of the Obama Administration and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Republicans want the Tea Party vote, but they are still squeamish about full endorsement due to media influence. The Tea Party movements is not an "astroturf" group manipulated by extremists - it is regular folks deeply concerned about borders/immigration, government regulation and size, and personal liberties. Occupy Wall Street has its share of media-hounds and socialists, but most folks want some kind of ethics and honesty in the systems that manage wealth.

A wise leader will see the commonalities and call for a new day of personal and social responsibility, with free markets, balanced budgets and fair tax codes. A wise leader can read between the lines and realize that most Americans do not want "pure" capitalism or socialism, but opportunity to flourish in a fair system (the rule of law) and compassion that cares for the vulnerable without creating generational dependency.

Populism is a deep vein in American political and social history. From the early emancipation and temperance movemments to the agrarian silver advocates to women's suffrage and industrial unions, hard-working Americans have seen through the image-manipulation and advocated for justice. It is my hope that we can transcend the libelous labels and professional pundits and call on the goodwill of responsible people to elect ethical leaders and energetically promote policies that create wealth within the rule of law and open opportunities for a better future.