Anti-Wall Street Protest and the Tea Party: Same Roots, Opposite Conclusions

Something is happening right now on Wall Street, but where it is going, no one can say. What began barely four weeks ago with a few sleeping bags and tarps has grown into a nation-wide movement with offshoots from Boston to Los Angeles, from Chicago to Washington. They haven’t been sneered at for a long time, the demonstrators who are camping in Zuccotti Park in New York under the slogan “Occupy Wall Street.”

Let it be understood, no one seriously tried to occupy the stock market. No one threw stones through the office windows of Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley. Nowhere are shops being looted as this summer in London. The drafty rectangle amid the urban canyons of Manhattan is much too small for hundreds of thousands to assemble as they could in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. And it is with virtually poignant care that the protesters are anxious to fulfill the strict requirements of the police — no tents, no portable toilets, no damage to flower borders. This is a camp of intelligent debate, not the headquarters of street fighters. And therefore it is all the more effective.

The rebels are hitting a nerve, because they are calling a social imbalance by name. What they get to the heart of is a widespread feeling that a few key players in American capitalism have been violating the rules of fair play for years. The frustration goes a long way, as far as the ranks of the middle class; its audience is primarily the bankers.

The taxpayers had scarcely saved them from ruin, when the banks continued as if nothing had happened. While the money jugglers have long since continued earning lavish bonuses, the rest of the country still has to gnaw on the consequences of the financial crisis. The real income of the average consumer is sinking; the richest Americans on the other hand are securing for themselves as big a piece of cake as never before since the economic crisis of the 1930s.

No wonder that the doubt in the philosophy of the country is growing. The “American dream,” that promise that everyone who tries hard will at some time reap the fruits of hard work, has burst for many. For example, for students who had to saddle themselves with almost $200,000 in debt to be able to fork over college tuition can now find only odd jobs. Good, affordable universities were once the guarantee of the age-old American principle of equal opportunities for all — the big tankless water heater of a socially open society.

It was the same rage at the excesses of Wall Street that once allowed the tea party to emerge. Except that those in the right-wing grassroots movement were involved an even greater rage against the government, which allegedly squandered billions and threatened the great American freedom. The grassroots movement of the left wing draws the opposite conclusion from the misery. They demand a more active government that taxes the rich more heavily and intervenes more actively in economic affairs.

Yet the parallels are not to be overlooked. Just as the tea party activists gave hell to their Republican Party friends, the left-wing rebels are placing the president under pressure. From their viewpoint, Barack Obama, the celebrated great hope of 2008, is dancing too agreeably to the tune of Wall Street.