Contentious Politics and the Tea Party (plus Occupy)

I’m currently taking a course on social movements and the role that such collective – and contentious – behavior plays in institutionalized politics. We often think of these things within the framework of familiar performances; protests (violent and nonviolent), marches, demonstrations, etc. Yet these are just tools that certain groups utilize when they have claims they wish to make on authoritative entities (be they institutional or personal). The two most recent and notable social movements in the United States has been, of course, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street (which isn’t to discount the various Occupy offshoots).

For the sake of the average attention span I’ll keep this short, but one passage in Sidney G. Tarrow’s “Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics” caught my attention as it relates to the Tea Party. The author writes about importance of disruption in contentious politics, noting that “the core of contention is the power to disrupt through the invention of innovative ways of performing protest.” This is accomplished through the aforementioned tools of action, which is more properly described as a repertoire of performances used in contentious politics. But not all repertories are equal. Tarrow explains (italicized emphasis is original, bold emphasis is mine):

 The repertoire of contention offers movements three broad types of collective action – disruption, violence, and contained behavior. These actions combine to different degrees the properties of challenge, uncertainty, and solidarity. The most dramatic forms, violent ones, are the easiest to initiate, but under normal circumstances, they are limited to small groups with few resources who are willing to exact damage and risk repression. The opposite forms, contained ones, offer the advantage of building on routines that people understand and that elites will accept or even facilitate. This is the source of its numeric pre-dominance in the repertoire, but also of its institutionalization and lack of excitement. The third set of forms, disruptive ones, break with routine, startle bystanders, and leave elites disoriented, at least for a time (Piven and Cloward 1997). Disruption is the source of much of the innovation in the repertoire and of the power in movement, but it is unstable and easily hardens into violence or becomes routinized into convention.

The author actually mentions the emergence of the Tea Party at the beginning of the chapter, listing the various ways the movement solicited their claims — town halls, demonstrations, organizing a convention, etc — that are all routine and well recognized. Yet it is in these forms that we see the divergence of tactics by the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. By utilizing “contained” performances — without any attending violence — the Tea Party social movement submitted their claims through actions that were more amenable to facilitation (and eventual acceptance) by elites. Occupy Wall Street, on the hand, very much went the way of “disruptive” by practicing a newer form of the “sit in” – occupying public/private spaces. In many cases this particular performance, and others, by the Occupy movement lead to violence – whether by clashes with police or destruction of private property. Now this is just an observation, mind you, without commenting on the responsibility for such violence. As Tarrow notes in the quote I pulled, such disruption is inherently “unstable.” It shouldn’t be surprising that any actions that leave the elites “disoriented,” especially police, might lead to physical altercations.

There is one lesson in studying social movements that is tangentially relevant to my experience witnessing both groups emerge and evolve, and that is the question of legitimacy. When the Tea Party movement was born there was much discussion on the left end of the political spectrum over whether it was a “legitimate” representation of independent public sentiment – as opposed to a groundswell of distinctly Republican push-back against a Democratic administration. Conversely, when the Occupy movement came into being there was much derision from the right that it wasn’t “legitimate” in the sense that the Tea Party was for various reasons – most notably the ensuing violence, but I also remember being highly annoyed at Jonah Goldberg’s obsession with defecation incidents (just Google it). The point of either reaction to the question, though, is that of course both movements are legitimate. They are/were legitimate in the sense that they both acted collectively to present claims to elites.

The fact that the Tea Party was demographically similar to traditional Republican voting blocs does not preclude it’s legitimacy as a social movement. Likewise, the fact that some Occupy events resulted in violence (or defecation, for that matter) did not preclude it’s legitimacy as a social movement. Bystander reaction erroneously assumes that it is the arbiter of either groups legitimacy, but their sentiment is really only important to themselves. Which is to say, their opinions on social movements are only relevant to whether or not they themselves consider either group worth paying attention to. For the study of such things it is much more important whether or not the respective groups’ claims were accepted or refuted by societal elites. In this case I would argue that, as of this writing, the Tea Party was much more successful.



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