Sometimes, protesters are just a small, loud group with views few others share. But sometimes, their willingness to take a public stand is the leading edge of a movement that will grow from a broad and deep public sympathy.
Whether the protesters occupying Wall Street are political activists who have the time to show up wherever there is an opportunity to voice their views or whether they are the tip of an iceberg remains to be seen. Polls suggest their core views — if such a thing can be said about this group — are shared by a majority of Americans.
Those views include disdain for investment bankers, a federal government that seems to cater to their needs and the needs of the wealthiest Americans, and the rise in corporate clout at the expense of the middle class.
Both the tea party and the Wall Street protesters — who might be called the 99 percenters because they claim to represent the economic interests of Americans who are not millionaires — have a focus on policy. And in fact, there may be some overlap between the two groups.
The tea party objected to the bail-out of the banks and insurance companies that were largely responsible for the recession. Tea party adherents objected even more vehemently to the Obama administration’s stimulus spending, the Cash for Clunkers program, loans to auto manufacturers and the health care bill, which they see as evidence of an expanding government.
Though the Republican Party claims ownership of the principles of small government and restrained spending, a majority of Americans — regardless of party affiliation — are uneasy about debt and deficit and wary of government’s solutions to complex problems like the rising cost of health care. And they should be uneasy and wary.
The 99 percenters believe the investor class is reckless and dangerous, and that government has broken faith with the middle class. Again, though Democrats would like to offer safe harbor for those who hold these beliefs, they really cut across party lines.
It is entirely possible — if in fact likely — that most Americans hold both views: that government borrowing and spending is unsustainable and risky, and that corporate “citizens” are now more equal than the other type.
Of course, dig a little deeper into each group and you’ll find less common ground. The tea party’s genesis, coming less than three months after Barack Obama’s inauguration, was partly powered by voters unhappy with the results of the 2008 election. Their calls for a return to more constitutionally pure governing came with little evidence that the new president was dragging the nation into socialism.
And the rage-against-the-machine-of-corporate-greed sentiment of many of the Wall Street protesters extends to some radical views about how wealth might be redistributed; some impractical and others anarchic. Many among this group rail about the erosion of the middle class, yet share little with those in that demographic.
Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo compared such political dynamics to trying to influence the course of a giant mill stone being rolled across the countryside. If someone leaned hard enough and long enough on one side — maybe, just maybe — its path would be altered slightly. Some of the 99 percenters and tea partiers may coalecse into voting blocs. But even if they don’t, their leaning on the millstone is valuable.