Toy With OWS and the Tea Party at Your Peril
Playing cynical games with these grassroots movements can backfire on leaders in both parties.
After observing the Tea Party grassroots grow, and carefully building alliances with many of their leaders during my tenure as Republican Party chairman, I came to appreciate that most Tea Partiers -- while frustrated and angry with "the system" -- are mainly interested in 1) working within the system for change, especially for a return to constitutional principles, and 2) educating Americans, especially candidates, regarding various public policy issues. I learned very quickly this movement of citizen activists would not -- and should not -- be co-opted. Instead, what they sought from the political establishment was cooperation.
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.