Popular Populism vs. Unpopular Populism

Occupy The SEC

There is a tendency in recent American political discourse to use the term “populism” as a form of putdown
– Simon Johnson, New York Times (Economix Blog), 1/16/2014

Populist political movements come out of nowhere.

A loose-knit group of people get fed up enough with something to take concrete action for a common cause. They usually start with protests and go from there. In the beginning they are nonpartisan.

That quickly changes… and… not all populist movements are treated equal.

Political associations are soon attached to them by the national media. On that basis the media decides which is naughty and which is nice. Once the media decides a movement’s political leanings its public fate is etched in stone.

A story in yesterday’s New York Times illustrates this:
An Occupy Wall Street Offshoot Has Its Day
– Simon Johnson, New York Times (Economix Blog), 1/16/2014

Occupy The SEC

Few people have ever heard of an Occupy Wall Street subgroup called “Occupy The SEC” (Securities and Exchange Commission)

It is a small intrepid band of seven Wall Street misfits and lawyers headed by Akshat Tewary. They formed a subcommittee within the original Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement back at its inception in October, 2011. It goes by the acronym OWSEC.

Unlike everyone else in Zuccatti Park, these folks actually wanted to do more than defiantly living in tents, marching around chanting “Banks got bailed out! We got sold out!” and mindlessly blocking the Brooklyn Bridge.

They took up a real cause. Their cause… beef up implementation of the so-called “Volker Rule” in the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. They decided to work within the rules to effect change.

Dodd-Frank is legislation passed in 2010 designed to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial collapse that resulted in big bank bailouts. The Volker Rule is its active ingredient which will prevent the banking practices that directly led to the bailouts.

The SEC solicited public comments on the Volker Rule. Banking interests worked hard to water it down.

In February 2012 the OWSEC submitted a remarkable 325-page “comment letter (pdf)” answering nearly 350 questions raised about the Volker Rule. They argued for stronger controls and made exact wording suggestions to the proposed rule. The OWSEC later filed a lawsuit in 2012 to speed up the process after there were delays implementing the rule.

The NYT and Simon Johnson deserve kudos for highlighting the tireless work of the OWSEC as a positive accomplishment of a populist movement.

The Other Populist Movement

Three years before Occupy Wall Street another populist movement rose up in strong protest over multibillion dollar bank bailouts after TARP passed the Congress in late 2008.

Back then TARP triggered national indignation over public money used to bail out the big banks. Its originating issue is exactly the same as Occupy Wall Street. It’s the same problem that OWSEC is still trying to fix today.

Yet, both movements could not be treated more differently.

The earlier populist movement was inspired by the concepts of fiscal responsibility and limited government. A spontaneous nationwide protest against excessive taxation was called for on tax day, April 15th, 2009. Upwards of 500,000 protesters appeared in up to 750 cities.

That first much maligned and marginalized national protest and all that came after it became known as the Tea Party movement.

Will Rogers once famously quipped, “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat”. No truer words could be said of the Tea Party movement. Like OWS, it isn’t a political party. It’s got hundreds of local branches, much like OWS does. Like OWS, it has many branches but no centralized organization.

Yet, in two short years an ill-functioning Tea Party movement fundamentally changed the political landscape of the United States in 2010. It engineered the greatest shift in across the board political power in U.S. history.

The U.S. House went from a huge Democratic majority to a huge Republican majority. Governorships shifted from a Democratic supermajorty to a Republican supermajority. The U.S. Senate supermajority was whittle down to just a couple seats. The biggest shift, though, was in state legislatures where 625 seats shifted into Republican hands.

After the 2010 elections over 50 members, mostly newly elected, belonged to the U.S. House Tea Party caucus. Today that caucus is still 48 strong and there are 5 more members in the U.S. Senate.

There are no U.S. Congressmen or Senators associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement.


Yesterday, the New York Times ran a danged good story illustrating that populist movements are not necessarily a “form of putdown”. To illustrate it used a positive example from the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Yet, the vastly more influential Tea Party movement was never mentioned. Why? The Tea Party brought excessive government spending back into the national debate.

Paying bills and advocating smaller government is an unpopular philosophy. It threatens big government liberal thought. For that reason, in some circles, it must be repressed. It must be eradicated. For that reason you will rarely read a positive story about the Tea Party movement.

The only “form of putdown” of populism existing today comes from the mainstream press led by the New York Times itself.

Early on, many in the news media publicly labeled Tea Party followers “teabaggers”, which is a truly disgusting derogatory term. Even President Obama used it to criticize millions of American citizens whose only crime is they believe in fiscal responsibility and limited government.

President Obama and the New York Times will painfully rediscover populism come the 2014 elections.


About azleader

Learning to see life more clearly... one image at a time!

Posted on Jan 17, 2014, in 99%, Civil Rights, culture, Government, journalism, Life, news, Occupy Wall Street, Opinion, Politics, populism, TARP, Tea Party, Thoughts. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. The tea party movement was co opted by a wing of the republican party and iften promites cost cutting at the expense of the most vulnerable members of society. Thst us why its not a popular populist movement.
    In a recession when millions are suffering is not the time to fund the military more and cut food stamps.

    Also the racist vilification of immigrants tho only a part of the tea party subscribe to it-tarred the whole movement for many people. I was an initial supporter until the cooptation and manipulation of the grass roots by Fox the Kochs and other corporate right wing 1% groups.

    Populism is for the People not the corporations. The REAL tea party IS but the media and republican party version is just mean selfish right wing corporatism repackaged as faux populism.

    If the tea party grassroots and the occupy grassroots worked together we coukd clear the corruption and fix our country in one year. Thst is why both parties had operatives in my local occupy blocking those of us who wrre trying to reach across those false party lines.
    That is why when I brought tea party people together with left leaning activists in coffee party the alphabet soup folks actually showed up took notes and worked to dissolve the group

    • Thanks for your comment. You prove the premise that not all populist movements are treated equally.

      The Tea Party movement promotes two main principles:
      1-Fiscal responsibility
      2-Limited government

      That’s it. No more. No less. No hidden agendas.

      • I think for the most part the corporate owned media always try to minimize and co-opt any populist movement. When I first got involved locally the grass roots tea party movement was as much about clearing out corruption and corporate control of government as just limited govt itself. The fact is the people in populist movements are frequently better educated and informed than the talking heads. We all know-hell Eisenhower pointed in out almost five decades ago-that fiscal irresponsibility stems mostly from corruption. When for profit entities control a government it is no longer a democracy and no longer works for the People. I believe both left and right are being tricked into opposing one another and each supporting certain aspects of the corporate 1% agenda instead of joining together to effectively stop the corruption that is causing the problem. If we did not fund corporations taking control of foreign resources thru trillions of dollars of military investment for over 264 foreign bases and myriad “black ops” programs (that are hidden from even Congress ability to audit!) We could easily and responsibility fund things that truly are necessary such as food stamps and unemployment, WIC etc These would also be less expensive if corporations had to pay the full cost of employees rather than gaining excess profit by shunting their expenses onto the taxpayers. Its a big shell game that mainstream news helps keep going but at least three tea party groups in 2008-2010 that I knew of personally thru my own or friends participation were well aware if these things and actively seeking to address the root problems of corruption. America appears unique in this ability to be divided and conquered by the corporate/1% / corrupt in government. Until we learn that all populist movements should be about what benefits all the people not the corporations/1%/corrupt then we will continue to see the problems multiply while the people fight one another and the controllers laugh:-/

      • I forgot to mention that the Dems worked hard to co-opt occupy and the corporate media also pigeonholed it as left wing when in reality our local occupy was half tea party to start. Our goal before the party line folks destroyed it was to erase the divisions and show that even if the congress couldn’t compromise or listen to one another the American people were still reasonable enough to work together to solve problems and create innovative solutions that met both “sides” requirements as much as possible.
        As long as media can reduce tea party to “small government” and occupy to traditional liberal demands then the corruption is never addressed and nothing changes-our taxes continue to fill corporate bank accounts while regular people lose their homes/jobs/life savings/self respect and in too many cases their lives.

      • You make some interesting points. Though the Tea Party and OWS have similar anti-TARP roots and should be closely aligned, they evolved differently.

        For the Tea Party, public protests were just a start that quickly faded away, evolving into local political action groups devoted to electing local and state officials that shared their views. It generated stunning Republican success in the 2010 elections.

        On the other hand, OWS was all about the public protesting itself. The majority of OWS energy went into perpetuating the protest, not into positive action. Catchy slogans, marching and tent camping was its lifeblood. It attracted throwbacks from the protest movements of the 60s and 70s.

        That is why there are 53 U.S. Congressmen and Senators, hundreds of state legislators, and many governors who associate themselves with the Tea Party and none with OWS.

        Most political corruption could be eliminated if all elections were 100% publicly funded and private and corporate campaign contributions at all levels – federal, state and local – were made a federal crime.

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