The words "Take Back the American Dream" crudely plastered on the sign held by a protestor reflect real frustration. Another placard simply saying, "Don't Trust the Government" announces heartfelt skepticism. Yet another screaming, "Make GM Pay Taxes" is a virtual anthem for the middle class. Demonstrators cheer as a speaker blasts the bank bailouts of 2008, as well as when he claims banks are reaping huge profits while average Americans suffer under high unemployment and job insecurity. "The president and the Congress failed the American people," another speaker shouts to wild applause.
Before someone starts hurling invectives at the Tea Party, this snapshot of political activism is a composite of occurrences at Occupy Wall Street rallies. Welcome to the New Frontier in American politics. It is raw with emotions, gives voice to the voiceless, has no true political "base" and recognizes no traditional political boundaries, and has already reshaped the electoral fortunes of both political parties.
What both of these movements have come to exemplify is the tempest brewing across the spectrum of American political thought. From the town halls of Middle America to the state capitol steps in Madison, Wis., to Zuccotti Park in New York City, activists are giving voice to their frustrations, anxieties and hopes. But are they speaking for all Americans?
It is true that both movements have rallied citizens around similar themes — we don't like the direction the country is going, and we don't trust government — but recent polls are showing that such expressions now have limited appeal, with each movement failing to capture the hearts of Americans.
However, in looking at the OWS and Tea Party manifestations, perhaps it is not so much where you stand philosophically, but rather who is standing next to you politically.
In an Oct. 18 ABC News interview, President Barack Obama openly expressed support for the Occupy Wall Street protests (and even linked them to the Tea Party):
What I've said is that I understand the frustrations that are being expressed in those protests. In some ways, they're not that different from some of the protests that we saw coming from the Tea Party, both on the left and the right. I think people feel separated from their government that the institutions aren't looking out for them. The most important thing we can do right now is — those of us in leadership — letting people know that we understand their struggles, we are on their side and that we want to set up a system in which hard work, responsibility, doing what you're supposed to do, is rewarded. [We must assure them] that people who are irresponsible, who are reckless, who don't feel a sense of obligation to their communities and to their companies and to their workers, that those folks aren't rewarded.
That analysis makes sense and strikes a chord, but it wasn't the analysis the president used to express how he felt about the Tea Party in April 2010: "I've been a little amused over the last couple of days where people have been having these rallies about taxes. You would think they would be saying thank you."
Nor was it the analysis used by Vice President Biden when he allegedly commented, "[Tea Partiers] have acted like terrorists," or by Newt Gingrich when he told OWS protesters to "get a job right after you take a bath."
So what is it about these two entities that causes almost convulsive reactions from presumably reasonable people? Politics.
The truth is, both the grassroots of the right and the left in America are no longer pawns to be moved into position by the mere shouting of a word or pointing of a finger by a leader. Instead, these activists have become an inconvenience to those who think they hold the power.
But the game must be played, and so Obama's "we are on their side" bow to the Wall Street protesters is really a naked political calculation. It is a roll of the dice — one in which the president would launch a "class warfare" argument against the Republican Party: "Would you rather keep … tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires or would you say, let's get teachers back in the classroom?" Nice sound bite, but it does nothing to get the local small-business owner to start hiring again. But of course we know that's not the point.
But here is the point: As the protests have spread from Wall Street to Main Street, the president and Democrat strategists seem to hope these demonstrations against "corporate greed" will be a sustainable progressive alternative to the Tea Party, thus boosting Democrat chances in next year's elections. Early indications are that such a strategy appears to be working — at least with those who are watching all of this from their living rooms.
A recent Fox News poll asked, "Do you think Barack Obama's political strategy for re-election is designed to bring people together with a hopeful message, or drive people apart with a partisan message?" According to Fox News, "Fifty-six percent said the president is pursuing his campaign strategy to bring people together. That majority of registered voters included 53 percent of independents and 68 percent of self-described moderates. It also includes 58 percent of people who earn over $50,000 annually."
This is, however, a strategy fraught with danger.
OWS protesters, however, are not as precise about what their movement is or what it stands for. As the New York Times noted, "Occupy Wall Street is animated by a central, galvanizing idea — that the distribution of wealth is unfair." True, but absent something more than alienating one's self from the "establishment" or refusing to leave the parks they have occupied in various cities, the movement may very well leave "many all revved up with no place to go." Which means the cause that became a movement could become just a moment co-opted otherwise by presidential politics. The Tea Party avoided that trap in 2010, and their impact on public policy has been nothing short of profound since then.
Similarly, progressives got an early taste of turning politics on its head in Wisconsin as they battled Republican Gov. Scott Walker in an organized and disciplined way over everything from collective bargaining privileges to locating members of the state senate (who had fled the state in protest). But that combination of energy and discipline has been lacking with OWS. The constant images of riot-geared police and stories of violence and property destruction don't help them to win friends and influence a wary America.
Going forward, the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements will be two excellent points of political reference. After appreciating their similarities (even conservative Sarah Palin says she doesn't like "crony capitalism" any more than, say, socialist Bernie Sanders), in the end it is clear that they represent two distinct worldviews. They don't complement each other. They collide. And they certainly don't compromise; rather, they challenge the very political orthodoxy that has gotten us into this financial mess.
Whether it's shouting down a congressman at a town hall meeting, protesting inside a state house chamber or occupying public parks across the country, a new and very different political dynamic — potentially more powerful than any we have witnessed in generations — has begun to emerge in response to the cynical political games played in Washington.
Hence, those sitting comfortably in their ivory-towered political establishments, including Pennsylvania Avenue, had better take a look out the window, because that sound you hear approaching from both directions is the footsteps of citizens with their pitchforks and torches — and a tent or two — on their way to the ballot box.
Michael Steele is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and served as lieutenant governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007. He is currently a political analyst for MSNBC and can be found online at steeleforum.com.