Much of what divides Americans along the political spectrum from left to right comes down to disagreement over the proper role of government. You can see it also in New York's Zuccotti Park, where people have been "occupying Wall Street" in recent weeks.
While the Occupy Wall Street movement shares some common ground with Tea Partiers (neither group likes the bank bailouts), it is the role of government that separates the two. Provoked initially by spending and bailouts by the Bush administration that then ballooned under President Obama, the Tea Party is focused on cutting government spending and lowering the national debt. Behind that concern is a desire to return to our constitutional principles of limited government with enumerated powers.
Occupy Wall Street is a less disciplined, more diffuse protest. Of course, the name itself, "Occupy Wall Street," and the place of occupation, a small park in New York's financial district, point to one particular irritancy: the business of business in America (though no one is protesting record profits at Apple Inc. and high prices for the new iPhone 4S). Alongside this we find the usual left-wing calls for big government salvation and utopian global sweetness: universal government healthcare, shutting down Gitmo, pulling the troops home from everywhere, canceling debts at home and abroad, etc., etc.
In their "working groups" on various topics of moral and political concern, the Occupiers have been trying to figure out what "a just economy" is, as though they are the first ever to ask this question. Ah, youth. A young man at the protest, in an interview by Jim Wallis of Sojourners, claimed, "This is a microcosm of what people want the world to look like, where we have healthcare, where everyone gets fed, and where the people own the media."
The Tea Party, with its orientation toward limited government, lined up behind the Republican Party in 2009 and 2010, but in the process it transformed the party, pulling it to the right. Will Occupy Wall Street have the same transformative effect on the Democratic Party, but without the electoral success?
President Obama and his party are understandably of two minds on the movement. They like its energy and they would like to harness it to pull the Democratic Party out of their present ditch for the 2012 election. For this reason, many Democratic politicians, including the president, have publicly identified with the Occupiers. "We are on their side," Obama told ABC News. In a way this is a natural fit. The Wall Street Occupiers are soul mates in their preference for government solutions. The discomfort comes from the far-from-Main-Street appearance of the protesters and the possibility of violence from the farthest left agitators among them. Pollster Douglas Schoen reports that, "nearly one-third (31 percent) would support violence to advance their agenda." So much for liberal constitutionalism. And no echoes of the Tea Party in that sentiment.
There is a more serious concern for the Democrats politically and for the country culturally in this wedding of Occupy Wall Street with the Democratic Party: It will further radicalize the division in our country between the Friends of '76 viewpoint of standing by our founding political tradition of limited government and the 20th century progressive vision of benevolent, centralized, technocratic oversight of all things.