The Right, The Left, The Election: The Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and The Presidential Campaign of 2012

Every four years those to the left of the Democratic Party go through the same soul searching; to vote or not to vote; build a new party or identify with an existing party; stick with principle or accept the lesser of the two evils: bolster the system or demand an alternative. This kind of soul searching has become a boring ritual and it continues in the shadow of Occupy Wall Street. Too many radicals still refuse to recognize the cost that others will pay – economically, socially, politically, and culturally — when the more reactionary candidate takes office. Third parties remain faced with a single-district, winner-take-all, system that undermines the prospect of sustaining any initial successes and leaves supporters wasting their votes. Old slogans like “Don’t Vote It Only Encourages Them!” no longer apply (if they ever did). The presidential election of 2012 remains very close. Limits on campaign spending have been abolished. Especially in swing states, victory might depend upon which party gets more of its mass base to the polls. Not to vote, or exhibit the appropriate partisan sense of urgency, only plays into the right-wing strategy.

From the moment that Barack Obama entered the White House in 2008, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stated bluntly that the primary goal of the Republican Party was to block the new administration and ruin any chance that the nation’s first black president might have for re-election. Action at the grass-roots accompanied this agenda. With funding from the Koch brothers and various right-wing organizations like “Freedomways,” the Tea Party took shape. Mostly based in smaller cities and communities in the South and the Mid-West, but also in white immigrant urban enclaves, the Tea Party is overwhelmingly white and petty bourgeois. Its primary constituency is composed of small business owners, independent contractors, non-union workers and farmers. They are educated but resentful of Ivy League types, urban life, and the cosmopolitan and secular character of modernity. Lacking the cultural and social capital of upwardly mobile professional strata, whose style and privileges they disdain, their incomes are mostly above the national average. Fueled by the rhetoric of Fox News and media demagogues like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Michael Savage, and inspired by evangelical fundamentalism, the Tea Party rejected everything associated with the welfare state and the social movements of the 1960s.

Evangelicals and far right groups associated with the Tea Party routinely began referring to Barack Obama as “the affirmative action president,” an Imam, a foreigner who lacked a birth certificate and even he Anti-Christ. His election was seen by conspiracy fetishists as the first step in a takeover of the United States by the United Nations. Indulging in a remarkable form of projection, the political right portrayed Obama as prejudiced against whites. Posters showed him and his family as chimpanzees, portrayed the White House with rows of watermelons on the lawn, and implied that the president was a crack addict. Obama was castigated as an advocate of the (black) welfare cheat, the (Latino) immigrant, the anti-Christian (Arab) terrorist, and anti-family (feminist and gay) forces. His administration was seen as representing the triumph of cosmopolitan and secular intellectuals, liberal elites and “socialist” hopes.

Embarrassed by the foreign policy failings of the Bush Administration, its inability to privatize social security and balance the budget, the Tea Party refused to sit quietly on the sidelines or act as cheerleaders for establishmentarian Republicans. Its members took aim at the largest government intervention in American history involving bail-outs of the auto industry and the banks, health-care and an invigoration of the welfare state, as well as a cultural agenda that allowed for abortion, multiculturalism, secular education, and the need to confront climate change. With the sweeping victory of the far right in the congressional elections of 2010, the Tea Party forwarded a new agenda of capitalist fundamentalism that relied upon old notions of possessive individualism and the invisible hand of the market. This new ideology transformed the GOP and even infected conservative “blue dog” Democrats who constitute a significant minority of the party.

Composed of roughly two hundred thousand, organized locally in about 1000 small groups spanning the country, the Tea Party enjoys “strong” support from about 20% of the voting populace or about 46 million Americans. But its influence obviously transcends its numbers. The Tea Party is not simply an “astro-turf” organization artificially constructed by the influx of cash by elites but a mass movement that has been an ongoing feature of political life in the United States.  Mixing laissez-faire economics with parochial populism and evangelical religious zeal, this new right-wing organization is the heir to the “know nothings” of the 1840s, the Ku Klux Klan that ruled the South and much of the Mid-West from the aftermath of the Civil War until the 1960s, the “America First” movement of the 1930s that preferred Hitler to FDR, the partisans of Joseph McCarthy following World War II, the ubiquitous John Birch Society as well as the “silent” majority of the 1960s and the “moral” majority of the 1980s, and the populist advocates of neo-conservatism that marked the Bush Administration. The Tea Party may vanish but its mass base will remain.

Right-wing political power was already evident in the election of 2008. Republicans were burdened with two failed wars; an economic collapse (in which their candidate did not even take a position); a discredited Republican presidential incumbent (Bush); and arguably the worst ticket in recent history (McCain-Palin). They also had to deal with the upsurge of support for a charismatic black Democratic contender who ran a near perfect campaign. Obama still only won the popular vote by 52.3 to 47.7. Whatever his wide margin of victory in the electoral vote, he never had a mandate. In exchange for bailing out banks that were “too big to fail,” the new president might have demanded better terms and perhaps even the nationalization of Citibank. He perhaps could have called for single-payer health insurance, introduced a jobs bill, and created a bank holiday on foreclosures. He could have addressed the question of poverty. His supporters were shocked by his readiness to compromise over the bail-outs, health-care, and the budget. They were also appalled by his refusal to conduct an inquiry into the Bush administration and its handling of the Iraqi invasion or launch a forceful attack on the Republican Party and the Tea Party.

President Obama was thrown on the defensive amid losses by the Democratic Party in the elections of 2010. He seemed unable to challenge the more conservative elements of his own party or the obstructionism of right-wing Republican politicians and their mobilized mass base. Under any circumstances, following the Republican congressional gains in 2010, the Obama administration seemed bereft of ideological purpose, and politically paralyzed. Its leader seemed woefully out of touch with his former constituency. His willingness to compromise on tax cuts favoring the rich, the budget, and a host of other matters only grew with the feeling that his mandate had diminished. The president’s attempt to forge a “post-partisan” politics increasingly appeared not simply naïve, but reflected his capitulation to corporate capital.


Amid frustration over the lingering financial crisis that began in 2007, and the paralysis of established liberal political organizations, some activists and anarchists accepted the challenge made by the Canadian magazine AdBusters to occupy the center of New York’s financial district and the heart of global capitalism. Others soon joined them at tiny Zuccotti Park in Manhattan and on September 17, 2011 they began a string of protest marches to City Hall,Times Square, and elsewhere. Occupy Wall Street became an instant media sensation. It generated a chain reaction of other occupations in major cities throughout the United States and nearly one thousand cities worldwide. Occupy Wall Street’s slogan  “We are the 99%!” highlighted economic inequality and a society fashioned by the Bush Administration in which, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (September 9, 2009), two-thirds of the nation’s total income gains from 2002 to 2007 flowed to the top 1 percent of U.S. households. Economic recession and political reaction spurred Occupy Wall Street and its supporters among unions, community groups, and everyday people who undertook the peaceful marches to City Hall,Times Square, and elsewhere.

Concern with the economy quickly blended with a host of other issues. A wide net was cast to gain new supporters. Banners magically appeared and slogans were coined. Tents were pitched, sleeping bags tossed one next to the other, food was donated, first aid stations were manned, and sanitation facilities were imported. Street performers provided entertainment and music.  A flurry of practical innovation took place in Zuccotti Park. Political forums spontaneously arose with a host of committees, unwritten rules of procedure to allow even the most shy and reserved to participate, and a general assembly. These radicals had as little use for the Democrats as for the Republicans. The most utopian among them envisioned a new language, a new consensus, and even a new spirituality opposed to traditional ideologies and “political” forms of conflict. What might be termed the core of the movement is obsessed with the thought of being co-opted by those establishment liberals and those on the periphery of their movement still willing to play ball with capital and the political establishment. With nostalgia for the style of 1968, and a utopian commitment to participatory democracy, its core activists sought to introduce new forms of “horizontalism” that would revolutionize society. Nevertheless, what these radicals thought they were doing was very different from what they actually accomplished.

Occupy Wall Street did not transform politics. But its members actually accomplished a good deal. They were subject to the cunning of history. For they changed the priorities of the very system whose total overhaul they desired. Not the liberal pragmatists or political professionals sitting on the sidelines but the idealists and radical activists of Zuccotti Park pushed the Tea Party and its Republican sycophants off the front pages. Occupy Wall Street energized dormant unions and community groups. Its actions in different cities raised numerous radical issues ranging from free higher education and student loans to aid for the elderly, animal rights, regressive taxation, and the poisoning of the electoral process by big money. Occupy Wall Street gave all these issues a radical spin. It also provided the impetus, pressure, and practical legitimacy for the new emphasis upon public works and the aggressive jobs-oriented left-turn by the Obama Administration. Even more important, Occupy Wall Street shifted the national discourse from the celebration of de-regulation, the free market, small-minded individualism, and a mean-spirited attack upon the welfare state to a new concern with the economic imbalance of power, solidarity, social equality, and the responsibility of government to its citizens.

Much can change in a year. The political landscape is very different now than it was a year earlier. Occupy Wall Street disbanded in the winter of 2012, promising to re-emerge in the spring. Activists envisioned new occupations and there were many plans for workshops in non-violent resistance. But movement energy cannot be placed in cold storage at one point in time and then defrosted at another. There was no way to accomplish that task anyway: Occupy Wall Street prided itself on rejecting bureaucracy, leadership, and organizational discipline. New concerns might have been publicized. Occupy Wall Street might have focused upon Citizens United, which allows for unlimited financial contributions to political campaigns, or defending abortion clinics in conservative state or mobilizing against a privatized prison system that has disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of the poor and people of color. But this would all involve making alliances and working within capitalist democracy. For Occupy Wall Street, it was all or nothing. Core activists refused to distinguish between potential friends within the liberal establishment and staunch enemies within the Tea Party. The spontaneity and anti-systemic radicalism that initially inspired the movement in 2011 paralyzed it in 2012. Nothing happened in the spring or the summer. Mass demonstrations at the conventions of the two major parties never took place. The phoenix did not rise from the ashes. Instead new forms of alienation were generated that might have lasting political results.


Disillusionment was compounded by a certain cynical indifference to institutional politics.  Unfulfilled utopian hopes raised by Occupy Wall Street compounded the disappointment with Obama. His campaign of 2007 had raised lofty expectations and his constituency embraced the belief that the nation’s first black president would transform the political system and usher in social justice. Even under the best circumstances, realizing such ideals would have been improbable. With the worst economic crisis of modern times, a newly deregulated financial sector, a burst of economic inequality, two catastrophic wars and a neo-conservative foreign policy, made it impossible. Obama brought a cosmopolitan sophistication and an articulate intelligence to the White House that was sorely lacking in the Bush administration. His election was a symbol of pride for people of color and hope for the future. Obama was bound to disappoint. But Obama elected to oversee a system in which innumerable factions and lobbies compete for power on an equal playing field. He was elected the president of a capitalist democracy.

Under this system, serving the interests of capital is the precondition for dealing with all other social and economic interests. Capitalist democracy renders employment upon private investment. Workers thereby rely upon decisions by capitalists to invest. Such is the structural imbalance of class power. At the same time, however, capitalist democracy has democratic elements: regular elections, civil liberties, and the universal franchise. Insofar as capital is becoming concentrated in ever fewer corporations, therefore, its political representatives must usually enter into coalitions with other classes and groups to legislate its concerns. Different sectors of capital are also often in competition. Subaltern groups can intervene in the process. Compromise is built into the system, but always within the existing imbalance of power that marks capitalist democracy. Every progressive politician must take that into account whether this involves making a deal on bail-outs of banks, health-care, immigration, or support for the auto industry. But the constraints embedded within capitalist democracy were forgotten amid the euphoria attendant upon President Obama’s election in 2008 and the spontaneous eruption of Occupy Wall Street. The general belief grew: Obama should have done more, he should have done it better, and he should have done it sooner.

Criticisms of this sort are par for the course. No reform is ever good enough; it can always be done better; and it always takes too long. Such views are par for the course. Communists expressed them about social democratic policy in the 1920s and 1930s and socialists directed them against liberals in the aftermath of World War II. Securing an imperiled radical identity is always a matter of utmost importance. Of course, there are completely legitimate criticisms of Obama. His refusal frankly and openly to address the question of poverty – or what Michael Harrington once called “the other America” – is disgraceful. Maintaining the American military presence in Afghanistan until 2014 and using drones in Pakistan has senselessly cost thousands of lives. Congressional investigations (leading to indictments) should have been launched against former officials of the Bush Administration on its handling of the Iraqi invasion. Guantanamo and other noxious prisons should have been closed. The brief window of opportunity that existed after Obama’s election for dealing with the banks was probably not fully exploited. He was too timid in confronting Republicans; and he never used the bully pulpit to maximum effect. While so many on the left condemn him as a sell-out, however, far more on the right consider him a “communist” or a “socialist.” Claiming that most Americans don’t understand the meaning of these political terms is a bit too self-serving: American leftists are not all that clear about them either and employ them abstractly without reference to existing political circumstances.

Fashionable preoccupations with the “communist hypothesis” (Alain Badiou), the virtues of “fanaticism” (Alberto Toscano), and the rehabilitation of “lost causes” (Slavoij Zizek) are useless for rendering meaningful political judgments about conflicting tendencies within capitalist democracy. Perhaps it is because radicals so often lack a meaningful political standard of judgment that they are out of touch. The question is not whether Obama is “really” a centrist sell-out but to which Western socialist leaders and Democratic politicians he should meaningfully be compared. Actually the president is no more or less a “communist” or “socialist” than most European social democratic leaders. Revolution is on the shelf and, in its absence, compromise is unavoidable. Those who believe that legislative gains are possible in a capitalist democracy without support from certain sectors of capital simply don’t understand the system they are contesting. That is especially the case in the absence of a sustainable and organized radical mass movement from below.

Some left-wing intellectuals have argued that the current election is “not about” Obama. But this is like suggesting that a rock concert is not about the main act. World-weary “Centrist” Democrats also like to insist that Obama did nothing exciting and that this justifies their support for him. But that is simply untrue. He succeeded on healthcare, where other presidents failed, with a program that abolishes pre-existing conditions and covers 30,000,000 citizens previously without insurance. He has defended the integrity of Social Security, Medicare, Food-stamps and a host of other programs from withering attack by the right. He has opposed the Bush tax cuts that so radically favored the rich. His administration introduced progressive legislation on energy, mortgages, student loans, and unemployment benefits. It has abolished “don’t ask don’t tell,” protected abortion, endorsed gay marriage, supported women’s organizations like Planned Parenthood, simplified the transition from illegal to legal status for thousands of immigrants, cracked down on their illegal employment of by big business, and effectively challenged Republican efforts to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters. Government bailouts of the banks and auto industries have had more than a measure of success and The New York Times (May 1, 2010) described Obama’s oversight legislation for the stock market as “the most sweeping regulatory overhaul since the aftermath of the great depression.” The Obama administration has sought to tax companies that invest abroad and roll back the Bush tax cuts that so radically favored the 1%. Obama has opposed austerity plans for dealing with the financial crisis in Southern Europe, resisted Israel’s plans to bomb Iran, pulled troops out of Iraq, refused to intervene militarily in Syria, opened travel to Cuba, contested the neo-conservative reliance on pre-emptive strikes and contempt for international law; and radically improved the global standing of the United States.

Mitt Romney won his party’s nomination by vacillating between defending the moderate conservatism of his political past and the radically right-wing drift of his party’s mass base. Republicans promised to “starve the beast” that they identify with the welfare state. They wish to roll back “Obamacare,” turn Social Security and Medicare into voucher programs, maintain existing tax inequities, and oppose unions. Theirs is the world of laissez-faire capitalism, fierce competition, and contempt for the ideal of economic justice. They seek radical de-regulation of markets, abolition of various government agencies, and unbridled free trade that allows for further “outsourcing” and capital flight. Republicans have opposed gay rights and gay marriage. They wish to make abortion illegal, shut down women’s clinics, and render their organizations impotent. Their educational agenda opposes “critical thinking,” evolution, and a multi-cultural narrative. They seek to break down “the wall of separation” between church and state. They wish to abolish limits on campaign spending and institute voting restrictions that would effectively disenfranchise hundreds of thousands among the poor and people of color. They insist upon stronger support of Israel, military action against Iran, intervention in Syria, 100,000 new troops for Afghanistan and Iraq, opposition to bettering relations with Cuba, and a rehabilitation of neo-conservative advisers and policy goals. Republican economic policy would return this country to the gilded age. Their supporters’ cultural outlook is nostalgic for the old world in which white men ruled, and their politics attacks the democratic progress that  subaltern groups have achieved. Their patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, their foreign policy is anchored in notions of imperial hegemony and lack of concern with international law, and their rhetoric conjures up images of fascism on the rise.

Every election is a choice between the lesser of the two evils, but some elections are more important than others. This is one of them. It is not about whether the present administration might have done more, done it better, done it faster – or done it with more flair. Nor is it simply about looming nominations to the Supreme Court or that, historically, social movements tend to flourish under Democratic rather than Republican regimes. Should the Republicans win this election it would serve as a lasting symbolic endorsement for laissez-faire economics, constricting democracy, bigotry, educational autarky, and a foreign policy unapologetically predicated on militarism and contempt for internationalist goals. Those who cannot see the qualitative differences between the two parties, who cannot see the urgency in opposing the powerful reactionary threat, are living in Hegel’s twilight where all cats are gray. Sectarianism has never built consciousness, but rather marginalized its advocates thus leading to still more esoteric definitions of the true faith and further disillusionment. Criticism of the Democrats can begin the moment that they win the election. New threats to political liberty, new crises in foreign policy, compromises and serious budget cuts are on the agenda. Soon enough it will again be time to take to the streets. Countering political reaction today, however, requires partisan support for the radically lesser evil. Too many radical intellectuals are saying: I want to see Obama win but I won’t do what I can for his re-election. They are hedging their bets. Thus, they are ignoring the most basic assumption linking theory and practice: “He who wills the end wills the means thereto.”


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Jeff Madrick: The Reluctant Vote

By Benjamin Barber: Prudence or Principle? Why I will Vote for Obama and Why I Won’t Blame You This Year If You Don’t

By Stephen Eric Bronner: The Right, The Left, The Election: The Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and The Presidential Campaign of 2012

By Judith Stein: The Day After Election Day

By Rogers M. Smith: Progressivism, Polarization, and the 2012 Election

By Lauren Langman: Why Obama Will Win the Election . . . and the Left Should Hope So

By John Ehrenberg: How to Kill a Vampire

By Claire Snyder-Hall: The King of the 1% v. The American Republic

By Steve Early: Labor’s Quadrennial Condition: Between A Rock and A Hard Place

By Chip Berlet: Vote for Democrats—Then Organize to Kick Their Butts

By Richard Meagher: Founding Principles

By Alyson Cole: What’s Wrong with Victims?