Born on the streets of New York, growing protests aimed at the heart of capitalism have sparked hope among liberals that they're witnessing the birth of a movement to counter the conservative Tea Party.
The pieces are all there: ordinary citizens banding together for a cause; signs and protests announcing their grievances. Could the nation be witnessing the creation of a new political uprising?
The “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrations started last month in New York and have since spread across the country, born out of anger toward the financial community’s success during a time of prolonged economic hardship.
Liberals are optimistic that those protests will translate into the kind of lasting political movement achieved over the last two years by the Tea Party, which helped reshape the trajectory of American politics, particularly within the Republican Party.
The hundreds of activists who have flocked to the “Occupy Wall Street” rallies are encouraging supporters to march under the flag of a grassroots campaign aimed at political and corporate reform. And a weekend rally in New York even resulted in the complete blockade of the Brooklyn Bridge, catapulting the burgeoning movement into a topic of national conversation.
Those protests in New York have now entered their third week, and seem to only be growing, and the demonstrations have only spread; supporters point to 50-60 cities hosting their own rallies of varying sizes.
There are three rallies scheduled this week in Washington alone — one of which is being branded as “Occupy D.C.,” a spin-off of the New York protests.
"It seems like on the weekend it finally hit the mainstream, and it's become kind of a political left movement in the U.S., hopefully to rival the Tea Party," said Kalle Lasn, the editor in chief of Adbusters, a leftist magazine that first developed the concept behind the demonstrations. "The Tea Party became the force it has become because it had tens of thousands of passionate people pushing up and influencing elections and policy. And now we'll see if political left has the guts to do the same."
The “Occupy” rallies in many ways resemble the Tea Party in its infancy. There is a great deal of initial uncertainty about whether these demonstrations have real traction or staying power, and, like the Tea Party, there is no central governing structure. The new protests lean well to the left, but have no formal association at this point with the Democratic Party or any other political organization.
They also share a focus, from their respective outsets, on Wall Street. The Tea Party emerged from frustration toward the government’s bailout of the financial sector in late 2008 and early 2009. The “Occupy Wall Street” protesters now argue that those companies aren’t doing enough to support the average worker.
But Democrats could benefit from the enthusiasm of a new political movement in many of the same ways that Republicans gained from Tea Party enthusiasm in the 2010 elections.
“I think they’re really touching a nerve,” Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, told MSNBC host Ed Schultz on his radio show Tuesday.
“I'm sure that there are political analysts who are looking at this in exactly that way. Whether that's successful is another story and whether the movement grows or is co-opted is completely speculative,” said Michael J. Williams, the president of the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action.
Organized labor has cozied up to the nascent movement, too. Several unions joined the protests this weekend, and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka hailed the movement during a public availability last week.
“I think being in the streets and calling attention to issues is sometimes the only recourse you have,” Trumka said Friday at the Brookings Institute.
The Tea Party first became ascendant in 2009, born of frustration toward the state of the economy in the aftermath of the near-collapse of financial markets. President Barack Obama's effort in Congress to overhaul the nation's health care system was an additional catalyst for the Tea Party, which took on identifiably conservative opposition to the president’s proposals in that debate.
Liberal groups are looking to capitalize on frustration about poor jobs numbers in order to translate grassroots angst into political strength.
Obama, Sanders said, would be “well served” politically to embrace the protests.
“The president has got to say, ‘I hear what you are saying, you’re right. We cannot have such an incredible concentration of power on Wall Street, it has got to change, the economy has got to work for everybody,’” Sanders explained. “So I think if the president said, ‘I do hear you, and we’re going to work to make it change,’ I think that would serve him very well.”
The “Take Back the American Dream” conference in Washington this week started Monday with a special session on the New York protests. The conference is being organized by the Campaign for America’s Future, which plans a rally Wednesday on Capitol Hill to push for “Jobs, not cuts.” They also plan a national day of action on Nov. 17.
Van Jones, the former Obama administration green jobs czar, is another figure behind the conference, and has also called for an analogue to the Tea Party on the left. (Jones resigned his post after Republicans criticized his signing of a 2004 petition suggesting that the Bush administration may “have deliberately allowed 9/11 to happen.”)
“I think this is a classic progressive, independent grassroots movement that will both build its own independent force, its own agenda and moral voice. And then you'll see that try to find expression and accrue champions of that in the electoral arena,” said Robert Borosage, a co-director of the organization.
There are more politically-oriented rallies planned, as well.
The “Occupy D.C.” rally that started this week in downtown Washington's K Street corridor, the home to a number of the nation's top lobbying firms. A separate rally, "October 2011," is scheduled for Thursday in D.C., to protest corporate influence on politics, and U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.
Even the supporters of a new liberal movement acknowledge, though, the potential for the new crusade to fizzle out.
“I think the biggest impediment is ourselves,” Lasn said, acknowledging that it could be easy for activists to become discouraged without any tangible signs of results.