Americans are mad as hell, and they aren’t going to take it anymore. They have taken to the streets to protest a corrupt system and a government they view as antithetical to fundamental American values. In the White House, they see an illegitimate president who ispresiding over one of the most troubling times in American history. They are marching and chanting, calling and mailing, rebelling and resisting. They intend to make their voice heard. The date is April 15, 2009, the Black Eyed Peas’ “Boom Boom Pow” is the number one song in the country, and the Tea Party has just been born.
The post-recession era was an especially fertile time for grassroots movements, providing a case study that sheds light on how to effectively resist in the current Trump era. Out of the Great Recession and the election of Barack Obama emerged the Tea Party and Occupy movements, each intent on driving the country in a different direction. Today, the radical conservative ideology espoused by the Tea Party has become institutionalized, represented at all levels of government. The Tea Party, at its core, was a coalition of rural White Americans who distrusted government, opposed trade, sought the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and espoused nationalist, xenophobic, and White nationalist ideologies. Sound familiar?
In contrast, the Occupy movement, which worked to highlight and halt the corrupt practices of Wall Street—as well as the fundamental flaws of the capitalist system—has largely faded from political and cultural relevance. Its lasting legacy has been a renewed focus on wealth inequality and the introduction of “the one percent” into the national lexicon, as well as a few regulations on the banking industry. But even this legacy is being erased. Roughly a week ago, President Trump issued an executive order signaling his intent to repeal Obama-era checks on risky Wall Street practices and weaken Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Consumer Protection Bureau, an agency tasked with regulating consumer-bank interactions.
How did Tea Party ideology reach the mainstream so quickly, while Occupy policies have mostly fallen out of favor? While there are a number of lessons to learn from the protests of 2010 and 2011, the most important one may be to start small. The Tea Party movement began online, sparked by Rick Santelli’s fiery speech on the floor of Chicago Mercantile Exchange. It exploded onto the scene on April 15, 2009 with tax-day protests that drew somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 people. But even after this large demonstration, the movement’s focus was always limited in scale. It was reactionary, rather than proactive, standing in opposition to specific policies such as the Affordable Care Act and proposed immigration reform. The Tea Party recognized that American politics operate on a very specific incentive structure, one in which representatives are accountable only to their constituents. With this tenet in mind, the Tea Party focused on the local level, identifying weak state and Congressional candidates. They organized voters within those candidates’ districts to attend Town Hall events and open forums, flood the phone lines, and capitalize on any public appearance by the representative. They made sure that any opposition to their agenda would make a representative’s job and life much more difficult.
A coherent resistance strategy means always remembering who the target is. The Tea Party challenged moderate Republicans—inspiring ire from the GOP—but their chief opponent was always President Obama. Every phone call, every protest, every letter was crafted specifically to obstruct President Obama’s agenda by diverting and impeding his efforts. They distorted the facts around the Affordable Care Act, taking a conservative healthcare policy and turning it into the unpopular “Obamacare” that is on the verge of repeal today. The Tea Party was able to remain relatively cohesive because it was united in its opposition to the first Black president.
Occupy Wall Street was also a reaction, formed in response to the banking and financial practices that created the Great Recession. But from the moment it began, Occupy was broad, disjointed, and unruly. We Are The 99%, a Tumblr page espousing the movement’s priorities, included this statement: “We are the 99 percent. We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we’re working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent.”
What were the political priorities here? They were calling for housing, banking, wage, healthcare, and general economic reform, but goals were unspecific and there was a lack of clear leadership. Who was the target? Initially, the Occupy movement’s chief opponent was Wall Street, but banking institutions are not publicly accountable (unless you believe their shareholders have power, which you shouldn’t), nor is the banking industry the most direct way to address many of the other grievances listed in the movement’s mission statement. In addition, the Occupy movement was an inherently liberal movement that was effectively demonizing and undermining a liberal president, a move that earned them little support from the Obama administration or Democratic members of Congress.
In recent history, it is Black Lives Matter that has most successfully operated a localized movement. BLM is also a reactionary movement, driven by centuries of subjugation and sparked by the killings of unarmed Black people at the hands of the police. It has clear targets—the police, the criminal justice system—with demonstrable policy prescriptions—the Movement for Black Lives platform includes universal voter registration and ending the privatization of police forces and prisons. Its organizing structure exists primarily at the local level, focusing on community change in areas like Ferguson, Baton Rouge, and Baltimore.
Another strategy that elevated the Tea Party was its decision to select leaders and champions of the movement. The Tea Party movement went national on February 4, 2010, hosting the first Tea Party Convention nearly a year after the initial protests. Despite experiencing its own challenges—internal factions, allegations of racism—the Convention cemented the Tea Party as a national movement with a coherent agenda. Sarah Palin’s keynote address fomented her as the de facto leader of the movement. Leaders, even ones as unruly as Palin, have the potential to guide and hone a movement. Two weeks after the Convention, Palin called for Tea Party activists to abandon third party rhetoric and attempt to work within the Republican Party. This became a very important distinction between the Tea Party and the Occupy movements.
Liberal movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter have shown an uneasiness with selecting leaders. Can you name the leaders of the Occupy movement? While Micah White is identified as the movement’s co-creator, Occupy intentionally adopted a nonhierarchical process that emphasized consensus building as a prerequisite to any decision. The same is true of Black Lives Matter, which has emphasized community over leadership. Chelsea Fuller, director of the Advancement Project—a California-based BLM chapter—said that BLM protests are spontaneous, rather than organized by one person or body. “We don’t get [people] onto the streets, they get themselves onto the street,” Fuller said. This strategy creates a more inclusive environment: one in which no single voice is elevated above the movement’s collective voice. But a nonhierarchical strategy sacrifices cohesion and direction. The Tea Party’s success may demonstrate that the benefits of clear leadership outweigh the costs.
The last strategy that the Tea Party utilized was arguably their most crucial, and the strategy liberal movements are wariest of adopting. The Tea Party—in part thanks to its leadership—made the conscious effort to work within the formal structures of American politics. Liberals on the coasts often argue that their candidates are already liberal, and occupy a seat that is safe for a Democrat. The Tea Party avoided this problem by challenging moderate Republicans in the primary, flanking them from the right. At first, this strategy was unsuccessful, as was demonstrated in the 2009 upstate New York congressional race, where Tea Party candidate Doug Hoffman ousted moderate Dede Scozzafava in the primary only to lose in the general election. But this didn’t stop the Tea Party. Less than a year later, during the 2010 Senate race, they helped secure the election of Tufts graduate Scott Brown (A81) to represent Massachusetts. At this point, as The Economist put it, the Tea Party had become “America’s most vibrant political force.” Today, the Tea Party caucus includes four members of Senate and 48 members of the House of Representatives, while its rhetoric and ideology have become the core of the GOP platform.
For very good reason, BLM and Occupy saw government as part of the problem rather than the solution. The Occupy movement viewed politicians as Wall Street stooges and perpetrators of the capitalist system, while the Black Lives Matter movement sees a political system that has historically oppressed and ignored Black voices. While these sentiments are understandable, they significantly limit the ability of a movement to create change. The Tea Party demonstrated that movements are most successful when they use grassroots support to influence the institutional level. This is the argument Occupy founder Micah White makes in his new book, The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution. “One of the things that I think [Occupy] tested—that we found out not to be true—is this idea that you can basically build the ideal society, the ideal microcosm, that you don’t need to become the ones in power,” said White. “Now we are realizing, no, actually, sovereignty can only be achieved through winning wars and winning elections.”
The takeaways are numerous. The Tea Party was successful because it adopted a localized approach, selected leaders that honed the movement’s mission, and utilized both a bottom-up and top-down strategy. Is the Black Lives Matter movement prepared to become more of an institutional political force by running their own candidates, even if some might view this as tacit approval of the government that has in many ways created and perpetuated the oppression of Black Americans? Is Black Lives Matter or a movement potentially spurred by the Women’s March prepared to choose leaders to represent them, even if this elevates certain voices above others? And are liberals prepared to adopt strategies of obstruction, even if they perpetuate political polarization and lower Democrats to the Republicans’ level?
These are fundamental dilemmas. But if liberals can reconcile their distrust of institutional change, they may find the key not only to resistance, but to progress.