by EW Wilder
The most obvious reason should be addressed first: the Tea Party has the backing of a couple of billionaires. This helps it survive, but as Occupy itself demonstrated, a lot can be accomplished with very little. The money is part of why the Tea Party still exists, but it it's far from the only reason.
2. Occupy has no electoral strategy. The Tea Party does.
It's as if no one from Occupy paid attention in high school civics class. The government in the US is not a top-down affair, and though Tea Party people complain endlessly that it is, they act very differently. We actually have a mixed system of local and federal control, a system in which the individual parts interact.
The Tea Party has what is sometimes called a “ground game.” This involves getting voters to vote for you. It involves meeting people. It involves fielding candidates. It involves knocking on doors. Occupy people are good at organizing rallies, but most voters tend to view that sort of thing as silly at best and threatening at worst. Occupy people are good at snarky Facebook memes. Tea Party people are good at winning.
Electoral strategy involves understanding that the county commission or the city council has more impact on the everyday lives of people than what happens in Washington, DC. Local government negotiates tax incentives for businesses, fills potholes, and makes sure the housing authority is doing its job. This is the level at which the tone of government is set. The utter absence of Occupy at this level means that the Tea Part message is the only one that gets heard. The voices of local health coalitions, food banks, and nonprofit service agencies sound like the “special interests” the Tea Party loves to vilify when there's no countervailing voice articulating why these things are important and deserve government backing.
State legislatures are important because, among other things, they determine federal congressional districts. We complain when these districts are gerrymandered, but, like it or not, this is the way things work. By failing to pay any attention to state legislatures, Occupy assured that Tea Party types would draw congressional districts. This made certain that Tea Party candidates would always win, as congressional districts would be “safe” for them for the foreseeable future.
As we have seen in Kansas, state and local officials also have tremendous power over voting regulations, and Occupy's seeming blindness to state and local government has allowed voter ID laws to keep people who agree with the Occupy message away from the polls.
This is sad because state and local offices are relatively cheap and easy to win. Since Occupy is great at organizing via social media, it should have representatives all over the place, but it does not.
3. Occupy decided to be about making a scene and not about making change.
As much as we'd love to think so, elections are not decided by Facebook “likes” or retweets. They're not won by high-quality bongo playing in Zuccotti Park. And while Occupy probably made the candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren possible, it did nothing to make Occupy a political force across the nation.
We are rightfully pissed off at Wall Street, but investment bankers are not, on the whole, capable of being shamed. Going to the physical location of the problem made for great theater, but it made for terrible politics. Contrary to what some in the Occupy movement seem to think, there are places in the country that are not Manhattan and not Cupertino. Even if Occupy had influenced politics in New York (it didn't much as Chuck Schumer is still office), that would have captured only a few congressional districts, giving Occupy only a smattering of votes among 435.
What can be done about it.
Had Occupy, instead, focused on winning over voters in Butte, Montana, it might have produced a senator or two, and a senator can filibuster. Had Occupiers stayed awake in civics, they would have understood this and focused a bit more deeply on the so-called “red” states. After all, our system of government actually favors the states, not the population on the whole. The fact that the majority of people agree with Occupy on policy makes little difference politically: he who controls Congress does matter.
Where Occupy got the idea that it could foment real change by focusing on New York City I'll never know—perhaps it's just an assumption that flyover states are inherently conservative and therefore not worth the effort. And while it's true there were small, local bands of Occupy activists all over the place, the bulk of Occupy energy went into making its point to people who simply don't care and structurally don't have to.
Instead, Occupy should have focused on crafting its message to appeal to the people who are actually being hurt by income inequality, rising health care costs, skyrocketing tuition, and declining levels of public service. These people distinctly do not work on Wall Street; they work at McDonald's and Tractor Supply, at small manufacturing firms and as unpaid interns, as adjuncts and delivery drivers and inventory stockers at Sam's. These are people who maybe once were middle class, and the Tea Party has a big head start in winning them over by making liberals look like dirty hippies and uncaring elites. These people may vote against their own interests, but they vote for people who are “like them,” at least in the sense of projecting a sensible, hard-working image. The fact that most prominent Tea Party politicians have never actually had real jobs and are mainly career politicians is, again, immaterial; they are not people who outwardly look like they don't work at all.
The Tea Partiers and those who fund them are not wise, but they are clever, and they know how the government they purport to hate really works. It's high time those who supported Occupy start boning up on basic civics. A distaste for retail politics will simply guarantee Tea Party control from now on.