Saturday, October 22, 2011

Form vs. Content: Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party

Its fashionable (and interesting) to compare the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. One need not wander too far afield to figure out why: both of them are taking the form (or in the case of the Tea Party when still nascent, took the form) of a sixties style social protest. This form of comparison can, of course, be misleading: as David Zarefsky pointed out in the early 80's in an essay on rhetorical studies's penchant for studying social protest, simply aping the formal characteristics of a social movement (appearing in public, lobbing demands at the state) does not immediately qualify a human gathering as an actual, anti-institutional social movement. However, this point, confined as it was to an article almost 30 years old, seems in some ways to have been lost (if it was ever found) by those comparing the Tea Party and OWS. I too, may prove guilty of this sin. However, I merely plan on assessing how the Tea Party's relevance changes the ways in which OWS can be read by the mainstream media.

To do so requires a reminder about what was truly incredible about the Tea Party: it was a conservative political organization willing to appear in public as an "outsider" organization, that is, as a group claiming to be structurally disempowered politically, and using that status to authorize it demands against the government. Typically, publics theory (especially those who follow closely Michael Warner) understand a key element in discussing political space the identification of those bodies that are marked and visible. Those marked and visible persons, because of their material existence "in" space provide the symbolic resources to construct an unmarked, invisible "mass public" not coterminous with the "marked" public but nevertheless related to them by virtue of the difference they share. But the fact that the Tea Party generated coverage, and was discussed (even in the vein of "are they legitimate?) was key because it established, at a deeper (one might say ontological) level the "truth" of the Tea Party as a protest movement: by virtue of its identification as "not" the public, its existence was certified.

Of course, the underside of this was the Tea Party, by appearing in public, risked marginalizing itself as (to use in an actually relevant way for once) "always already" not the public: by trudging out the white, mostly male, middle aged bodies of the Tea Partiers, they established that they did not belong to the mass public they identified: the progressive, neo-socialist political movement led by Barack Obama. Nevertheless, whatever work the Tea Party did to unhinge a certain version of conservatism from its disembodied position as the structuring possibility of American politics, the Tea Party itself, by measures of either symbolic circulation or policy/electoral success, established itself as a relevant force in American politics.

It was something about the form of the Tea Party that attracted media attention. After all, American for Prosperity, The Heritage Foundation, Newt Gingrich: all of them were demanding lower taxes, smaller government. And its not as if these calls hadn't succeeded: between Clinton-era welfare reform and the Bush tax cuts, such policy positions were riding high. But the combination of electoral victory for Barack Obama and the ardent, energized, and angry Tea Party proved an alluring media target: how was conservatism configuring itself in the wake of the electoral chaos of 2008's repudiation of conservatism? Its actual appearance, that it appeared at all, was a really big deal, because it signaled a kind of refiguring of American political space.

Josh Gunn (whose blog should be mandatory reading) points out in a recent TP/OWS comparison post that there was a pretty substantial "lag time" in the way the media responded to OWS, owing to the difference in the movements form. Josh argues that the Tea Party was a mostly virtual movement, while OWS was fairly "spatial" in that the actual Occupancy of a physical space near a site of injustice matters. I don't disagree but I want to add a supplement: I also think that the history of social protest in America (Full disclosure: I recently read Nixonland and can't get away from it), especially the dominant narrative of the sixties as a battle between authority and hippies/protestors, helped to overdetermine how the form of social protest was itself a kind of content: one that harkened back to the old battles between cops and Yippies, trials of the Chicago 7, civil rights marches in the South, and so on. The Tea Party, however, as a conservative insurrection, produced the possibility that social protest could not be coded immediately as "liberal" on the basis of form alone. So while the right continues to circulate the old "bunch of smelly hippies" arguments, they are finding a lot less circulation in mainstream political discourse than did say, the WTO protests (also, to the Occupiers credit, violence from movement members has been very, very low). Occupy Wall Street may well persist because objections to the movement on a purely formal basis may be difficult to sustain. Instead, content based arguments about the movements demands (or lack thereof, to read the papers of the day) signify that the form of the protest might matter a lot less for deliberation purposes, and that space for meaningful disputes on the basis of policies is posible (though perhaps not likely.)

In sum: the gambit of the Tea Party was that they could appear as outsiders, aping the protest strategies of progressivism to capitalize on the way the symbolic environment on American seemed to be marginalizing them after the 2008 election. However, by legitimizing "appearance in public" as a protest strategy in form alone, one of the most effective conservative arrows used to delegitimize liberal protest politics (the linking of social protest as a "form" to a history of the "loud minority" cataclysms of the 60's) was taken out of the argumentative quiver. To the extent that OWS makes successes in the future, it owes these in part to a conservative belief that social protest could be coopted in the name of conservatism.


  1. Incidentally, since you brought up good old Tricky Dick, note what this means for political invocations of the "silent majority" in American political discourse. It would seem that just about every mass-public opinion poll indicates that a significant majority of Americans are in favor of what OWS and its associated movements are trying to do. #Occupy has tried to capitalize on this with their "We Are the %99" slogan, which I originally thought was problematic, but to the degree that it figures the ability of the demonstrators to invoke the silent support of the bulk of the citizenship it strikes to the heart of the matter.

    Of course, one can always question how truly representative opinion polls are. The key question, though, is whether agenda-setting channels in the mass-media take up the idea that #Occupy might, after all, really represent the majority of the inactive citizenry in the country. That would be one index of an epochal shift back toward some kind of liberal-centrist center of gravity for political discourse, away from the largely mindless rightward drift of the last 30 years.

  2. Thanks for the comments (I assume this is not the jamie that usually reads my blog). Its interesting...once both sides are "represented" visually then it resets the terms of the debate because it can be about content rather than position if that makes sense. Also the polling over OWS is a lot like polling on the health care bill: broken into parts, it polls well, polling on it as a whole is more negative. You are right: if "OWS=representative" begins to circulate a lot, thats a huge, huge deal.

    thought this was somewhat relevant, and mostly cogent.

  4. Thats a very coherent article. I do think the tendency towards comparisons is based on the shared "form" of both but as you indicate the content differential is serious. As is the character of coverage by both by the media (the lag, for example, in Occupy coverage vs. the immediate Tea Party coverage)