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Grounds for Common Cause Between Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party? An Interview With Timothy P. Carney

Wall Street protest on September 26, 2011, in New York's Financial District. (Photo: _PaulS_)

Grounds for Common Cause Between Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party? An Interview With Timothy P. Carney

Wall Street protest on September 26, 2011, in New York's Financial District. (Photo: _PaulS_)

Last week, I challenged libertarian populist writers for The Washington Examiner, who had been writing disparagingly about Occupy Wall Street, to accept my invitation and come by. It turned out that Timothy P. Carney, one of the writers I named, was planning on doing just that to write about it. Thanks to Mr. Carney for graciously agreeing to be interviewed.

J.A. Myerson: When your book “Obamanomics” was coming out, a lot of the remarks you were making in promoting it revolved around finding common cause with anti-corporatists on the left to dismantle the unsavory marriage between democratic politics and corporate greed. I wonder if you see grounds for common cause here at Occupy Wall Street, which is undoubtedly an anti-corporatist protest, most of whose participants are leftists.

Timothy P. Carney: I saw more grounds for common cause at Occupy DC than I have in my first couple of hours here, in part because they were more wonkish there. Here, I've been seeing more talk about broader concepts: socialism, getting rid of the idea of an employee, every worker should own the company etc. I don't think there's a lot of common ground to be found there, obviously. But I think that in DC, when they're talking about bailouts, the wars, the military industrial complex and the fact that the tax code is so game-able that GE was able to pay 0% while other smaller businesses and individuals are paying way more.

That's sort of an irony, that the more specific the protesters got on policy, the more common ground I could see, as far as complaining about bad stuff. Here, there's a broader picture in mind, almost philosophical and ideological, rather than policy-driven. It might just be that people here don't follow policy as closely as we follow policy down in DC.

The result is that here, it ends up being anti-capitalist rather than just ire at the guys who actually are ripping us off. That said, there are plenty of signs that say “The banks stole our money.” To say that tax-payer dollars are “our money” sounds almost like a conservative.

JAM: I've been interested in getting a census going of Occupy Wall Street, to find out demographic information: age, political persuasion, geographical origin. A blogger at produced an unscientific poll of the group and it found that, apart from the “Don't Know” sect, a plurality of respondents wanted very much to end the fed and none of them could explain what it does. I wonder if the numbers would be too different at a Tea Party event.

TPC: The tea party demographic, I think you'll find, is about 40 years older than at this. I look around and see the majority here are people under age 40. The tea party was an older demographic, which is interesting because it makes for differences in the character of the anger. At Occupy Wall Street, I see a lot of things about student loans and other young-person-angsty things, while the tea party was interested in the national debt, which actually is a young-person thing too. Everyone I talked to here railed against Citizens United, which is not an objection I share. We on the right don't like what GE and Boeing are doing with their political voice, but we don't think limiting their political voice is the correct solution. So, the complaints have a lot of overlap, but it's definitely not 100% overlap.

JAM: Today, the Occupy Wall Street crowd has heard speeches from Slovenian deconstructionist philosopher Slavoj Žižek and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges, both of whom spend considerable time warning against co-optation. Žižek , because he's Žižek, did this metaphorically – comparing friends who aren't really friends to decaf coffee, non-alcoholic beer or low-fat ice cream. Hedges specifically called out the Democrats, including Charlie Rangel who appeared here, MoveOn and the AFL-CIO, cautioning those in attendance that the goal isn't to get good people in power, but to make the powerful apprehensive.

TPC: Right. The proto-tea party were the anti-Obamacare protests in the summer of 2009. Republicans just loved that, because it was just serving their purposes. Then the tea party started up. At first, the GOP sounded the same – “We support what's going on” or “It's a good idea” – but then all of a sudden Charlie Crist, the Republican candidate for Senate in Florida, fell into second place behind Marco Rubio, which the establishment didn't want. They went on thinking the situation was manageable, until Rand Paul beat Trey Grayson in Kentucky.

Then it went from paying lip service to a panic that took the form of either attacking the tea party or really trying to work with it. That Rand Paul primary opened a lot of the Republicans' eyes. It did two things: one, it got the Republicans trying to co-opt the tea party movement, but two, it made them scared. This is something that liberal organizers understand almost innately, but it took conservatives accidentally doing it to realize that politicians are only going to do what you want them to do if they're afraid.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney on MSNBC Saturday was like, “It's obvious they want us to pass Obama's jobs bill,” which is what Carolyn Maloney was saying before Occupy Wall Street was going on. The Democrats want to channel Occupy Wall Street's media attention into their pre-existing agenda and channel the energy here into support for that agenda, which is basically getting reelected in November. So, if there are not primary challenges to Democratic politicians arising out of this, then we'll know that this isn't having an effect on what Washington is going to do. That isn't everyone's goal, but if that is a goal, there have got to be Democrats who are terrified that they're going to lose their job if they're not responding.

JAM: Not being of the right wing, my smell-test for who is serious in the world of far-right sectarian minutiae is lacking – I cannot intuitively distinguish a principled libertarian populist from someone like Dick Armey, who'll vote for the Patriot Act and then found Freedom Works. I can do that on the left with reasonable accuracy. From your flipped perspective, then, I wonder if you think this has the power to do that – to make politicians nervous.

TPC: I don't know. What's going to happen when the weather gets bad and people aren't sleeping in the park anymore? The internet would allow for organizing in that way, I guess, but what are going to be the goals around which the organizing happens? If they want to go and primary politicians, I think there is probably enough energy being stirred up here to get it done. But instead, if what they want to do is have a new constitutional convention and reinvent the republic, no, that's not going to happen.

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