Political Minutes: The Road to November 6

On Wednesday, March 21, a panel discussed the formation of the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements and their predicted effect on the upcoming 2012 presidential election. Mary Marshall Clark, the head of the Columbia Center for Oral History, moderated the event, the second of three spring panels held by the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy (ISERP). The panel included political science and SIPA professor Dorian Warren; Vanessa Williamson, a third year Harvard PhD student who recently co-wrote a book about the Tea Party movement, entitled The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism; and Todd Gitlin, a professor at the School of Journalism. Gitlin, also a prolific author, is currently writing a book on the Occupy Wall Street movement called Occupy Nation. The event was dominated with discussion of Occupy Wall Street, the main topic of interest to both Warren and Gitlin. Warren, in his speech, gave a quick recount of the events leading up to Occupy Wall Street’s September 17 beginnings. He then said that despite the anti-hierarchal principles of most people in Occupy Wall Street, voluntary Internet survey data shows that Occupiers self-identified less and less strongly as independents and more and more strongly as Democrats as the movement progressed. He says this may lead to an increase in progressive mobilization for the 2012 election, particularly with Obama’s new populist-leaning message.

Gitlin agreed with the upcoming tie between President Obama and the Occupy Wall Street movement, both in terms of the resonance with his populist message and the notion that conservatives will try to wrap Obama in the idea of radicalism, as they did by focusing on Bill Ayers in 2008.

He said that the possibility of “dramatic confrontations” pose a problem for Obama in this respect, especially given the possibility of protests at the highly visible upcoming party conventions or the G8 summit, which has recently been moved to Camp David from the original Chicago.

Warren and Gitlin disagreed, however, about the nature and origin of the current Occupy Wall Street movement. Gitlin drew a comparison to the liberal energy felt during the 2008 Obama campaign, whereas Warren said that the historical parallel he would draw would be to the first progressive populists, who formed due to the inequality of the Gilded Age. Gitlin also likened the protests to a “movement of moral awakening,” akin to the 1960s counter culture repeatedly calling OWS an outsider movement. Warren found the horizontal and directly democratic methods used by OWS to be more like the anti-globalization and Seattle protests of the late 1990s.

This difference in choice of OWS influences is perhaps explained by Gitlin’s presidency of the radical group, Students for a Democratic Society, in the early ‘60s and Warren’s time as a student of political science in the late 1990s.

While Warren and Gitlin’s discussions occasionally focused on how OWS is similar to the Tea Party, Vanessa Williamson’s analysis focused solely on the conservative group. She stressed the three different forces in the Tea Party movement: the grassroots activists, the previously established conservative groups who started taking up the cause on a larger level, and the conservative media.

She stated that the Tea Party achieved such rapid success in part due to the political moment in which it happened, during the shambles of the Republican Party left from the 2008 election, adding that the impact seen in 2010 is not likely to be seen again.

All three panelists took questions from the audience regarding the future of the movements and the upcoming election particularly, though none forecasted the exact impact the groups would have.