The protesters who have become fixtures near Wall Street and in other cities where "occupy" movements have taken root have much in common with the tea party. Both seem to be upset by bailouts given to financial institutions and other large businesses. Both seem motivated by what adherents see as a shift of power from the common American and toward monied interests and the politically powerful. The difference seems to lie in their direction and underlying philosophies.
We say "seem to" because, like the tea party, the Occupy Wall Street group lacks focus and central direction. Comments protesters make to reporters are all over the map. Most are concerned with the idea that 1 percent of the population is inordinately rich and powerful. But at least one Army veteran told the Los Angeles Times he was protesting because many of his fellow soldiers "died for corporate America." At the same time, another protester in New York City insisted, "We're not here to take down Wall Street. It's not poor against rich."
If you feel confused by this, you're not alone.
Both the tea party and the "occupy" movement have tapped into a general feeling of powerlessness and anger in much of the nation. It would be a mistake, however, to over-estimate the depth of their support. In the case of the "occupy" protesters, there is real danger in their anti free-market rhetoric. Wall Street must carry its share of blame for the nation's economic collapse, but it is struggling today to create jobs despite government-caused market uncertainties and a host of new regulations. Without a robust free market, the entire nation will suffer from a lack of wealth and opportunity.
A recent opinion poll published by the American Enterprise Institute found that Americans are not as concerned about wealth distribution as protesters would have people believe. When asked if there are too many rich people in the United States, 42 percent said the current amount was about right, and 21 percent said there were too few. Only 39 percent characterized rich people as greedy and selfish, while 43 percent said they had at least somewhat positive feelings toward the rich, compared with 38 percent whose feelings were somewhat negative or worse.
However, 66 percent said they feel successful people on Wall Street do not deserve the kind of money they are making, which was almost the same as the percentage who feel NFL players make too much.
These kinds of general questions show many Americans retain their belief in hard work and enterprise, but that they feel frustrated by an economy that doesn't seem to give people the opportunities they once had.
It is natural that such feelings would lead to protests and grass-roots movements. Lengthy vigils, however, will not accomplish much, especially when the demands are so vague, unfocused and diverse. Sleeping in public parks and on sidewalks won't arouse much national sympathy. Political involvement, however, might. On that score, the tea party already is miles ahead.