I've dreamed up a political project so crazy, so utterly out of step with the mood of American media coverage today, that you know I'm going to have to run with it.
Many have suggested that the Tea Party movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement have a lot in common (many others have ridiculed or severely ridiculed this notion). Well, I don't think it's worth dwelling on whether or not they currently have a lot in common. Instead, let's look to the future and ask if a common political platform -- addressing the economy, social issues, foreign policy, the environment and electoral reform -- can possibly be built that might capture the enthusiasm of a significant fraction of both Tea Party and Occupy protesters. And I'd like to try to construct that platform over the next few Philosophy Weekend blog posts, with your comments and suggestions. I can hardly think of a more exciting and ambitious project to take on.
A unified protest platform for the United States of America -- why not? One thing I'm pretty sure about: there are only a few bloggers or political commentators
stupid ambitious enough to seriously try something like this. And I'm one of them.
I believe a unified protest platform is possible because the need to fix structural problems in the USA government is so urgent that caring citizens on both sides ought to be willing to cast a wide net in the pursuit of change. Who are the real opponents of Tea Party and Occupy protesters? The automatic answers might include Barack Obama (if you're a conservative) or the Koch brothers (if you're a liberal), but I'd like to propose instead that these are the real opponents:
- Dishonest government bureaucrats
- Corrupt lobbyists, and the businesses that pay them
- Pessimistic citizens who fear the future and prefer the safety of the status quo
- Apathetic or uneducated citizens who don't understand the urgency of either protest movement
Please note that I said "opponents", not "enemies", because a friendly and non-judgmental approach towards fixing major problems is much more likely to gain traction than a hostile and accusatory one. My proposal is to examine the practical political platforms represented by both protest movements, identify the areas of mutual agreement, and suggest some compromises that might appeal to moderate or action-oriented protesters on both sides.
Of course, both the Tea Party and Occupy are amorphous and leaderless entities, so the first challenge is to define the political platforms on both sides. In order to get us started quickly, I'll propose two personalities that I think represent the ideologies of both sides: Ron Paul, for the Tea Party movement (I've been digging into his writings in the past week, inspired by last weekend's post), and Elizabeth Warren on the Occupy side. These choices are not fully representative, of course, but they are good enough to get this project off the ground. Here are some starting rules:
1. Represent the best, not the worst, of each side. The Tea Party and Occupy movements are large, uneven, highly participatory movements. There are a few hateful voices -- racist, dishonest, eager for the opportunities that violence would provide -- at the fringes of both. It has been convenient for those who wish to dismiss either movement to point to their worst elements, and so we have been asked to believe that the Tea Party is essentially racist (because of a few offensive posters or signs), or that Occupy is essentially anti-semitic (because a tiny minority of Occupy participants like to point out that many bankers are Jewish). There are also representatives on both sides who believe that an inevitable apocalypse or violent revolution awaits this nation, and hope to see either movement evolve into armed revolt.
As we proceed to build our common platform, we have to be careful to avoid the rhetorical trap of defending either side's problematic representatives too broadly. If there is actually any racism or anti-semitism lurking within either protest movement, that's not our problem. If anybody in either movement rejects compromise on principle and prefers to "weapon up" and prepare for violence in the streets, that's not our problem either. We will aim to represent the best minds on each side, and to find an inclusive and positive platform that can represent both protest movements.
2. Maximize opportunities for common ground, avoid bogging down. There are several issues where today's protest movements almost seem to converge. On economic policy, both Team Partiers and Occupiers have been highly critical of the Federal Reserve bank system. On social issues, an emphasis on libertarian principles will find appeal on both sides. With regard to foreign policy, there are intriguing seeds of potential partnership to nurture among the antiwar activists on both sides.
In each of these areas, though, there are also issues that will poison any attempt at common ground. Tea Partiers tend to blame the government for the economic crash of 2007/2008, while Occupiers tend to blame the banks. It's obvious to any sensible observer that both sides are right, and yet this somehow remains a terribly divisive question. On social policy, both sides tend to emphasize a wide range of differences (regarding abortion, gun control, education) that may seem like deal-killers even when compromise positions are available. On foreign policy and attitudes towards foreign intervention, the Tea Party itself is clearly split between the Ron Paul anti-militarism wing and the more conventionally Republican-allied pro-defense-spending contingent, and it's pretty obvious that a unified protest platform would engage the anti-militarism wing of the Tea Party.
3. The past is gone. Move forward. Forget how much liberals and conservatives have hated each other in the past. That's got nothing to do with fixing the future. Let's let it go. Let's start fresh.
4. As we reach for common ground, don't get discouraged, and don't be afraid of failure. Since a unified protest platform is is a pretty crazy idea to begin with, we can at least begin the experiment without an overwhelming expectation of success hanging over our heads. If we get nowhere, we'll at least have tried. We should certainly expect to be ridiculed, insulted and ignored. As we move forward, we should prepare to laugh off our failures while keeping a keen eye out for the light at the end of the tunnel, as far away as it may seem.
Those are the basic rules, and my next task is to lay out (in the Philosophy Weekend posts that will follow) some basic principles to move this project forward. I also hope to devote future Philosophy Weekend posts to addressing each of the main areas of the platform in turn: economic policy, social issues, foreign policy, the environment, electoral reform. I hope you'll participate by sharing your ideas, reactions and suggestions as we proceed. If nothing else, this should be fun. Maybe we'll even get lucky and it'll turn into something real.