The two political groups that have the most energy, vitality, and interest both nationally and in South Carolina today are the Tea Party and the much newer Occupy Wall Street.
Quick quiz: Which of these two groups could generally be characterized as:
- believing government is broken and politics is corrupt
- a populist grass roots movement
- convinced that special interest groups control the politicians, not the people
- opposing big banks that got bail outs and believing the average citizen was stuck with the bill
- making the major political parties nervous, as the parties don’t know what to do – run from them or embrace them
- using the Internet and new technology to communicate with their supporters and suspicious of the mainstream media
- believing the tax system is unfair and that the average citizens pay too much while the special interests pay to little
- creating suspicions among their opponents that they are just a front group for rich and powerful special interests that manipulate them behind the scenes
- having a fringe element, often decked out in funny costumes, that the rest of the group is a little embarrassed about and that the media tends to focus on.
The answer is obvious – it’s both.
Though both groups resist the idea that they are somehow alike – though on different ends of the ideological spectrum – in reality there is a lot they share in common.
The traditional politicians and the mainstream media are stuck in the old political paradigm of trying to place everyone and everything on a simplistic left vs right ideological political spectrum. They are missing that something fundamentally different is happening.
Bob Dylan said it best: Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones? (or Ms. Haley? or Mr. Boehner? Or Ms. Pelosi?)
Let me suggest a different way to look at this. Instead of this stale horizontal left vs right ideological axis, we should also be thinking in terms of a vertical scale, an up and down axis of change vs status quo. Regardless of ideological difference, both the Tea Party and the Occupy folks would be located high up on this vertical scale of change vs status quo.
Neither group fits easily into the preconceived ideological horizontal left vs right formula and that’s what makes them so hard for the media to understand and why the traditional political elites are so nervous.
Obviously there are lots of differences in these two groups. For one, the Tea Party has been around almost two years and has grown and changed. The Occupy folks just began a couple of months ago – and surely they too will change and morph over time, as well.
So getting beyond all this political science theory mumbo jumbo, what does all this mean in real terms for South Carolina politics?
I believe that if we can think about things in a new way, we can fashion a reform agenda for change that at least most folks in these two groups, and the vast majority of independent thinking South Carolinians, can agree on. For example:
Open and accountable government that makes all government spending, legislation and votes easily available to the public in real time
Crack down on high-paid, special-interest lobbyists, or even ban them all together if that’s possible
Ban all campaign contributions from business, political action committees and unions
Redistricting reform to eliminate ‘safe seats’ so that incumbent legislators are genuinely held accountable via competitive elections
Greater citizen involvement in the day-to-day decision making of state government.
Can these two groups come together around such a common agenda for reform in South Carolina? Yes, they could, but it won’t be easy. And don’t look for any of our existing so-called political leaders to lead this charge. Most are stuck way too far down the change vs. status quo axis, and way too busy protecting themselves and the special interests they serve.
So, as with any genuine democratic movement – be it the Arab Spring in Cairo or the reform movement here in South Carolina, ‘we the people’ are going to have make it happen.
Regardless of where we begin – with the Tea Party, Occupy or the independent middle – we all need to get involved.
This is one political quiz none of us can afford to fail, because on the most basic level, both groups are right. Our state government is broken. Our politics is corrupt. And only we, the citizens of South Carolina, acting together and with common purpose, can put an end to the venality and clean up the mess.
Editor’s Note: This story originally published Friday, October 28, 2011 at SC Press Association.