Why the Tea Party Failed, and Occupy is Close Behind

In their Influential book, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, and How They Fail, Francis Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward argued that a social movement’s, particularly those championing the interests of the working and poorer classes, greatest enemy is not necessarily the established order, but the empowered organizational elements claiming to represent said interests. Citing several lower-class movements of the mid-twentieth century United States, most notably the 1930’s unemployed and industrial workers movements and the Civil Rights Movement, they held that the most effective strategies for change among these demographics was open protest, disruption, and civil disobedience, and that these strategies became compromised through organizational leadership and the prospect of political representation. In short, movements of this nature draw the attention and aid of various like-minded institutions whose very presence creates an easily divisible atmosphere, and unwittingly manifests the proverbial “head of the snake” for an established opposition to sever.

Furthermore, Piven and Cloward noted that established opposition, in this case the U.S. government, has the option to employ three strategies to combat social movements such as those mentioned above, when the government is unable to ignore their insurgency. First, they could meet the demands of dissenters comprehensively or through negotiation and compromise. More often than not, tactics of this nature are mostly contrary to the interests of the governmental agenda in general, or the ruling classes specifically. Second, they can employ open, even legal methods of repression, which has the potential of further strengthening the dissenters’ resolve, or of drawing the admonition of even those unfriendly to the cause, thus exacerbating the situation.

Lastly, the most effective, and the most devious in this author’s opinion, is what Piven and Cloward called an attempt to “conciliate and disarm the protesters,” by conscripting their leadership through an expansion of the bureaucracy, turning what Lenin referred to as a vanguard of the proletariat into an “unsuspecting” agent of the State. The established system will grant meager concessions, if they come at all, that are “usually part and parcel of measures to integrate the movement into normal political channels and to absorb its [the movement’s] leaders into stable institutional roles.” Hence, the government will pacify, and disarm dissention with the hope of cooperative reform in the context of the traditional system, thereby redirecting militancy into bureaucratic and other existing political process.

What ensues is that the movements’ organizers and leadership, whose allegiances the authors charge are more often toward organizing or political aspirations regardless of motivation rather than the actual movement, become preoccupied and overburdened with greater social progress within the system, and neglect whatever driving forces geared toward practical concessions on the ground. Those allowances granted to the masses then are either good enough to satisfy discontent—thus negating further insurgency—or they are not enough to reinforce faith in the movements’ leadership and overall goal, and foster division and eventual disintegration.

Now, what implication does this present for our present dissatisfied climate in the form of both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street Movements? For all intents and purposes, this process has already overtaken the Tea Party in more than one way. Piven and Cloward argued that social movements are most successful during instances of divided government, in which case a small driving element of the Tea Party was a perceived misuse of policy under a united Democrat government. Their protests mostly fell upon deaf ears among lawmakers, but the Tea Party ultimately contributed to the biggest party shift in Congress during the 2010 Mid-Term Election to some degree. Although their numbers boasted no official leadership to speak of, several incumbent and existing congressmen, such as Rand Paul, Vicky Hartzler, or Marco Rubio to name a few, carried the mantle to Washington to the extent that we now have a Tea Party Caucus in Congress. In sum, given their successful campaign that filled the House of Representatives with similar minded conservatives, the Tea Party willingly traded their most effective weapon, public dissention and protest, at the cost of inclusion within the very system at issue, and we have not heard from them on the same scale since.

To once again quote Piven and Cloward, “That this happened speaks to the resiliency of the American political system. That it happened so quickly, however, and at so cheap a price, speaks to the role played by leaders… themselves.” Like the unemployed workers of the Depression, apparent representation within that system seemed sufficient enough to satisfy the Tea Party’s demands; in addition, it more or less spells certain doom for the movement as a whole. “For by seeking to achieve more substantial reform through organization and electoral pressure, they forfeited local disruptions and became, however inadvertently, collaborators in the process that emasculated the movement.” In this context, the summer 2011 showdown over the debt ceiling was little more than a meager concession to appease the wants of the masses; what many viewed as a somewhat symbolic act of indignation, the thirty-plus attempts by the House to repeal the Affordable Care Act too continue the process of appeasement without any tangible outcome.

In a sentence, the Tea Party has failed! The reason for this failure is not for a lack of trying, or even an indication of an invalid claim. It is because they relinquished the only effective weapon at their disposal in favor of process, which favors State interests and the status quo overwhelmingly more than their cause.

Likewise, Occupy Wall Street is sailing along a similar heading, and like those congressional freshmen of 2010, 23 congressmen serving and endorsed by the Tea Party, or the 117 that self-identify with the cause at present, the New York City General Assembly (NYCGA) is now in a position to severely jeopardize any future success of the movement. The fact that Occupy receives endorsements among the elected establishment, even in passing, stands as evidence that the process of conscripting the cause through placation and eventual suppression by neglect has already begun. Now there are professional organizers involved that the authors claim care mostly for organizing; now there are political concessions and the hope of future reform, now there are the beginnings of a “head to sever” while the body dies; now the ball is in the government’s court.

This is not to say that organization for a given cause is inherently evil; many would argue that a concerted effort in some form is essential for a given movement’s progression and future effectiveness. However, one must be cautious of the organization that is willing to sacrifice the movement’s primary source of momentum without substantial concessions from the establishment in question. There is little doubt as to the fighting spirit of most Americans, but fighting on another’s terms is how you lose—and losing is intolerable at the cost of human progress.


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