When the traditional media finally deigned to take notice of the Occupy movement (e.g. Occupy Wall Street, OccupySTL, etc.), there was lots of yammering about how it compares to the Tea Party. A difference that is frequently noted is that the Tea Party supposedly had greater focus and more explicit goals. As the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capeheart puts it:

What the [Occupy Wall Street] declaration lacks, is a clear path for changing the policies that have engendered so much justified rage. … This is what the Tea Party movement has done to great effect. Followers don’t like the expansion of government and deficits and they fought both wherever they thought it lurked.

But is this really true? It’s a fact that the Tea Party was really sure that it didn’t like the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – but I remember a gathering in 2009 where the Koch brothers’ front group, Americans for Prosperity, the main sponsor of the meeting, were handing out prepared anti-health care reform talking points to folks who were simple enough to believe in death panels and worried about losing their Medicare. In other words, there was lots of evidence even then that nascent Tea Party goals were no more than the usual corporate goals being imposed on easily imposed on folks. As Rick Perlstein noted last year, the Tea Party was nothing new:

…the Tea Partiers are overwhelming [sic] Republican or right-of-Republican – they are the same angry, ill-informed, overwhelmingly white, crypto-corporate paranoiacs that accompany every ascendancy of liberalism within U.S. government.

Add to that the element in the Tea Party that clearly doesn’t like uppity black men, and you had a ready and willing, if somewhat geriatric, mob ready to focus on any predigested pablum that was handed out. First health-care reform, and then that convenient tool of GOP political obstruction, deficit scare-mongering, became the ready-made focus of Tea Partiers, many of whom didn’t understand too much about either.

It is arguable that the Tea Party “goals” that everyone is talking about never amounted to more than “Washington very, very bad.” What the Tea Party brought us in practical terms was a spate of almost mindless budget cuts – some of which would actually increase the deficit – enacted by a crop of politicians who, for the most part, exhibit little or no consistency between rhetoric and behavior. Just look, for instance, at the folks the Missouri Tea Party sent to Washington.  Ask Tea Party darling, Rep. Vicky Hartzler, about those wasteful farm subsidies, why don’t you? And don’t wait for Tea Party auctioneer, Rep. Billy Long, to ever go against the GOP leadership – poor baby wouldn’t know what to do on his own.

Did the Tea Party, which is much given to self-inflating grandiosity, begin to take itself a little too seriously? Seems likely. Also seems likely that more than a few GOP political types are secretly kicking themselves for thinking that they could summon up a mob and keep it under tight control. Others, though, might be ready to jump ship. Bill Keller’s speculation today that the Tea Party might be just about over is, I think, significant and tells us all we need to know about its essential mushiness.

As for the Occupy Wall Street contingent, they may not be addressing specific legislation yet, but they are expressing the heart of the matter, the corruption of the political process by big money and the corresponding decimation of the middle class, with great clarity. I think that Frances Fox Piven sums up the difference between the Tea Partiers and the Occupy folks just about right:

Contrary to early media reports, they are thoughtful and well-informed. Where Tea Partiers chanted confused slogans like “Get government’s hands off my Medicare!”, the Occupy Wall Street protesters issue well thought-out proclamations about a future defined by cooperation and a democracy freed from the clutches of economic oligarchy. And they invite Joseph Stiglitz to address their general assembly.