For the past year and a half I’ve been shuffling around a half-written essay about the ways in which the tea party is hopeful and exciting and, in some ways, just what this beleaguered country needs. But I never quite knew what to make of my mixed feelings, especially the part of that mix that includes a heavy dose of admiration and envy. Until recently, that is.
I am not talking about the capital letters Tea Party, but the lower case tea party movement that spurred people across the nation to real live civic action — something that looks a lot like democracy.
They talked about their values and encouraged and developed each others visions. They engaged with their history. They mobilized their friends and families and neighbors. They thought about how to make their communities better, and seized opportunities for action, running for office, holding conventions, bringing their message compellingly to the establishment. They had fun with it too, throwing parties and dressing in whimsical costumes.
What’s not to love? I mean, sure, there’s plenty, especially on the inclusiveness tip. But the tea party movement’s greatest flaw is not in its heart, which is people finding their civic power on a community scale, but in its ultimate faith in — and co-optation by — the flawed systems which it critiques.
Just as the tea party movement seemed to gain at least some of its mojo from the grassroots wildfire of the Obama campaign, it seems like the occupy movement has in turn arisen, in part, from a sense of “we can do that, too, but without the Koch brothers.” The flat attempt to start a left-ish “coffee party” never caught on. We needed to turn it up a notch. We needed high energy congregations, shouting, and costumes.
The occupy movement has innovated more than the tea party on process, and as a result has a different, harder-to-identify, stickier kind of independence, one that seems to attract participants with a wider range of political visions from sternly ideological anarchists (militantly socially inclusive libertarians) to vaguely centrist liberals who sometimes catch themselves thinking that Ron Paul sounds like the most reasonable candidate at the debate. Its resulting lack of a unified platform is one of its greatest strengths — it can’t be pinned down and swept away. Its weakness is that it might achieve its goals or become mired in fighting for them, forgetting the magic, like falling in love, that frees people to become part of something greater than themselves and evolving into a capital letter Occupy Party in which the mic check will become its own kind of tyranny and nobody will be inspired to put on a chicken suit.