A Tale of Two Movements: Princeton’s Lack of Engagement in the Tea Party and OWS

By Elizabeth Swanson ’12

The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are very different movements. Although there is some ideological overlap, the Tea Party can be understood as a conservative backlash to President Obama’s election and perhaps more specifically his health care reform plan, while Occupy Wall Street is a response to the harsh economic climate of the Great Recession as well as a loss of faith in Obama as an “American savior.” Both movements have sparked national debate, and the Tea Party has effectively changed the political climate for the 2010 and 2012 election cycles. And yet, neither movement has left an imprint on Princeton’s campus. There is no Tea Party club like the ones springing up at other universities around the country, and despite our close proximity to Manhattan, few Princeton students are engaging in the protest. It is their common root that has left Princetonians largely disengaged with both movements.

Back in 2009, ‘Tea Party’ meant a physical event—tea parties were rallies organized using Facebook groups. Participants would meet with like-minded libertarians, make speeches, and read excerpts from Ayn Rand and the Federalist Papers. Their frustration and momentum from the rallies precipitated into an objective—to move away from bloated central government and return to Jeffersonian small government with power divided amongst the states. The goal was to elect Tea Party candidates on the federal, state, and local level.

While the Tea Party still celebrates its roots as a spontaneous grassroots movement, it has evolved into a more professional political organization. Rallies and campaigns now receive funding from sympathetic interest groups like FreedomWorks, as well as private citizens like David and Charles Koch. Some historians and political pundits initially expected the Tea Party to become a third party, like the Populist Party in the late 19th century, or the modern-day Green Party, but this did not happen. Instead, the movement became subsumed by the Republican Party, and Tea Party values have—for this election cycle—become almost synonymous with Republican values. Though the Republican-Tea Party union has given the movement a mainstream presence in the public square, the Tea Party has maintained its skeptical outlook on “politics as usual.”
In its brief lifespan, the Tea Party has grown significantly, in numbers and in power. There are now 60 members of the Tea Party Caucus in the House, including 17 freshmen from the 2010 midterm election. The Tea Party is in a position to determine the Republican nominee, and conversations about whether a candidate is acceptable to Tea Party voters are common.

The small Tea Party presence at Princeton has integrated quietly into the College Republicans. There are several members of the College Republicans that identify with the Tea Party. Brian Lipshutz ’12, the President of the College Republicans, sees this as a natural union of complementary ideologies. He also feels that there is room in the College Republicans for a wide range of moderate and conservative thought.  “All of our members at [College Republicans] discussions are sympathetic to the Tea Party’s call for limited, constitutional government,” says Lipshutz. “Of course, our members sometimes have disagreements with certain Tea Party figures about specific policy proposals, interpretations of the Constitution, or rhetorical strategies. But I’m sure my friends on the political left would say the same thing about certain Democratic Party figures.”

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is six weeks old at the time of this writing. Dre di Mura, Wall Street occupier and son of Princeton faculty member Vince di Mura, compared OWS to the Tea Party. “We’ve learned from the mistakes of the Tea Party,” he said. “We’ve declined, respectfully, the partnerships of political parties…the great thing about this movement is it doesn’t have any objectives. Right now it’s like a think tank. We’re gathering our ideas to consolidate so we an be more efficient.”  No leaders have emerged, but the Marxist and anarchist rhetoric used at the General Assembly meeting of occupiers by the food tent at Zuccotti Park on November 1 suggests that this act of civil disobedience is at least a step or two to the left of Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity, which, like OWS, was interpreted by some as a liberal response to the Tea Party.
Participants at Occupy Wall Street look more diverse than the average Tea Party member—although, as the New York Times recently noted, members of OWS, like the Tea Party, are predominantly white.  What the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement share in common, however, is a profound anxiety that the country has made a wrong turn. The Tea Party and OWS focus on different primary antagonists: the federal government and the banking system, respectively. A self-identified liberal Catholic who got his master’s from Columbia sits on the F line headed to Wall Street. He carries a sign reading ‘I am the 99%’ and insists that the Supreme Court’s biggest mistake was Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886) when the Court granted corporations all the rights of personhood under the fourteenth amendment.

Many conservative commentators have mocked OWS and criticized the movement’s lack of leadership or a clearly articulated agenda. Though Princeton is generally left leaning, our response has been largely the same—ranging from distrust to amusement. During Princeton Halloween, one student dressed as a Wall Street mogul in a suit and tie with a sign reading, ‘I am the 1%.’ Another student wore trousers, a white collared shirt with dollar bills stuffed in the breast pocket, and a sign that read ‘Occupy Occupy Wall Street.’

Several Princeton groups have arranged for trips to Occupy Wall Street. On October 21, the Pace Council for Civic Values sponsored a trip to observe the protest. Only ten students participated. Rev. Tara Woodard-Lehman, the Presbyterian campus chaplain, extended an invitation to a number of religious groups on campus to travel to New York and observe OWS, but had to cancel the trip due to lack of interest. There are two other reasons for the lackluster response to OWS at Princeton, and these reasons can be applied equally to the lack of engagement in with the Tea Party movement.

First, Princeton undergraduates are generally politically apathetic. Seniors will remember that the 2008 election generated much momentum on campus and culminated with many election night celebrations.  Students and professors took part in phone banking efforts for both Obama and McCain, and many spent fall break campaigning. This moment was the exception to the rule and can be largely attributed to the Obama campaign’s ingenious, game-changing social media and organizational strategies to mobilize young voters. The 2008 election represents the high-water mark of student political engagement at Princeton since the turbulent 1960s—and even then Princeton was remarkably inactive compared to other East Coast universities. There is not enough room in this article to explore the reasons for Princeton apathy, but countless Princeton faculty and students have lamented the general lack of political engagement or even knowledge of current events. We even have a name for it: the Orange Bubble.

In a Daily Princetonian column published in Spring 2010, Christopher Troein ’12 concluded that we were willing to consider the Tea Party’s views, but just too busy to take part. But instead of just calling apathy by name, he suggested some amount of struggling and anxiety around protesting. “We know that it is impossible to boil down politically and socially complex issues to a single banner, and we are too busy to try.” This attitude is different from apathy; we wrestle with political issues. We may feel empathy for a cause with all of its subtleties and complexities, but we stop short of standing for the cause in the public square where we know the complexities will be boiled down to two stanza chants, two word signs, and two line bullet-points on CNN.

The second reason that we are not involved is that the Tea Party and OWS are both populist movements.  As di Mura observed, “this [Occupy Wall Street] knows no race, this knows no party, this knows no faith. This is the people’s movement.” The Tea Party wants to “take back America” for “real Americans.” Populist movements are  “us” pitted against “them” for social and economic justice. The “us” is The People, and the “them” is, well…us. The ones with the power and the voice. Elitists. Princetonians.

The Tea Party is often considered anti-intellectual, and the anti-intellectual strain of most populist movements is understandably unappealing to Princeton students. Presidential candidates who identify with the Tea Party have even sought to trumpet their anti-intellectual credentials (with the obvious exception of Newt Gingrich, a former college history professor). Rick Perry proudly touts his Texas A&M degree as superior to an Ivy League education, while Michele Bachmann has refused to retract some of her more fanciful remarks, such as her claim that the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly to end slavery.” Some adherents of the Tea Party have also expressed affinity for conspiracy theories, such as the birthers. A recent Yale study shows that the majority of Tea Party members do not think that global warming is real. It is this kind of rhetoric that gives us Ivy League eggheads a queasy feeling in our stomachs.

Though the Wall Street occupiers have accumulated a 4,000 volume ‘People’s Library’ and different OWS caucuses hold regular academic discussion groups, OWS has its own anti-intellectual strains. In the last six weeks, reporters have recorded many occupiers giving statements so inarticulate they seem like parodies. And like any unorganized populist movement, OWS includes disturbing factions ranging from anti-Semitic and homophobic to crackpot. This beast has many heads, and, as Troein’s article suggests, Princetonians are hesitant to stand behind such an eclectic movement.

Populist movements work to give a voice to the disenfranchised, the ‘silent majority.’ The simple fact is Princetonians are not disenfranchised. We are the 1%. Some of us have accumulated thousands of dollars worth of student loans, and many of us work student jobs, but our intellectual and cultural capital grant us access to a privileged life that is completely inaccessible to most of the other seven billion occupiers of the planet Earth.

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