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Will Occupy Wall Street Make a Difference in 2012?
Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux,
Topics: Economy

Photo from Atomische + Tom Giebel via Flickr

A few weeks ago, Jesse Jackson paid a visit to a small meeting of some of the Occupy Wall Street movement’s principal organizers – and, to their surprise, he began to talk about Lyndon Baines Johnson. Gently rebuking an OWS leader who said that he associated LBJ with the Vietnam War, Jackson launched into a list of the social welfare legislation passed during LBJ’s tenure as president: “Civil Rights Act of 1964—LBJ. The Voting Rights Act of 1965—LBJ. Medicare—LBJ. Medicaid—LBJ. Child Nutrition Act—LBJ. Jobs Corps—LBJ.”

Jackson’s point, at least according to John Helleman, the author of a new, lengthy piece for New York Magazine about OWS’ troubled relationship with the Democratic Party, is that the protesters will need to find allies among elected officials (presumably within the Democratic party) if they want to be successful in changing the existing economic and political order. In fact, according to Helleman, Occupy Wall Street could make the 2012 election look less like the 2010, when Tea Party candidates dramatically shifted the balance of power in Congress, and more like 1968, when discontented young activists broke apart the Democratic base. And Helleman may be right: far from coalescing around a single message as the Tea Party did in 2010, the Americans who sympathize with the Occupy Wall Street movement are more ethnically, ideologically and religiously diverse– and perhaps most importantly, they are less politically engaged.

In the article, Helleman describes a fractured movement, with fundamental rifts between its most dedicated supporters, many of whom reject the notion of alliances with establishment figures like Howard Dean or even President Barack Obama and those who are more dedicated partisans. Some of the protests have even shifted toward outright hostility toward Obama, despite sunny predictions by Democratic pundits that the OWS movement signaled a shift in the political landscape that would help push Obama across the finish line in 2012. On Wednesday night, protesters gathered outside one of Obama’s expensive campaign fundraisers, holding signs that read, “Obama is a corporate puppet.”

This appears to be a sharp reversal from earlier this month, when an Occupy DC crowd gathered outside the White House to invite Obama into the movement. But this apparent contradiction signals just how fractured the Occupy Wall Street movement truly is. And how these internal conflicts are resolved –principally among them whether the Democratic Party is an ally or an adversary—will make the difference in determining whether the movement will have the same political impact as the Tea Party – or whether it spirals into extremist obscurity.

The different demographic profiles of the supporters of the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements help tell the story:

  • Americans who share the values of the OWS are nearly twice as likely NOT to be registered to vote as those who identify with the values of the Tea Party movement (27% and 15% respectively).
  • Nearly one-quarter (23%) of those who identify with the values of the Tea Party movement are retired, compared to just 14% of those who identify with the values of OWS.
  • More than 7-in-10 (71%) of those who share the values of the Tea Party identify as conservative. By contrast, liberals account for less than half (43%) of OWS’ supporters, with moderates making up 33% and conservatives making up more than 1-in-5 (21%).
  • Eighty-five percent of Americans who identify with the Tea Party are white non-Hispanic; only 16% identify as non-white. Significantly fewer (63%) of those identifying with the values of OWS are white, while a sizeable minority (37%) are non-white.

Notably, supporters of the OWS movement are younger, more ethnically diverse, and less likely to be registered to vote than supporters of the Tea Party. OWS supporters are also more ideologically diverse, which perhaps speaks to the movement’s myriad of goals and issues. The ethnic diversity of the OWS movement also presents logistical problems – for example, according to Helleman’s article, there were fears among OWS organizers that open opposition to the Obama presidency could alienate black supporters. But perhaps most worrying for those who hope that the OWS movement will have a tangible impact on the political system is the fact that OWS sympathizers are less likely to be registered to vote.

The lack of love between OWS and the Democratic establishment is a two-way street. Unlike the Tea Party movement, which has been widely embraced by rank-and-file Republicans, less than half of self-identified Democrats say they identify with the values of OWS. These results paint a portrait of a movement that will be more difficult to organize behind a coherent political message in 2012 than the Tea Party was in 2010.