Menu

OPINION

The Public's Focus Shifts from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street

The bottom line on last Tuesday’s election results, according to The Wall Street Journal, is that “voters in battleground states have a limited appetite for dramatic efforts to reshape government.” USA Today’s story hit the same theme, describing voters as sending a message against “what they interpreted as extreme policies and proposals.”

And where did that extreme, losing agenda come from? Republican governors and Congress members elected in a GOP wave generated in 2010 by angry, active Tea Party voters.

The goal in Ohio and elsewhere was to fulfill the Tea Party’s agenda: to reduce taxes for investors and big businesses and cut the size of an intrusive, over-regulating government. With that agenda in mind, Ohio's Republican Gov. John Kasich put in place a new law limiting collective bargaining for public unions while cutting pensions and benefits for public employees.

Thanks in large part to union organizational efforts, more Ohioans came out to vote against S.B. 5 this year than voted for Kasich last year. According to Quinnipiac University, even before last Tuesday’s vote only 36 percent of Ohioans approved of Kasich’s performance. That number is likely to go down.

Other first-term GOP governors like Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Rick Snyder in Michigan have seen their approval ratings slide as they use the Tea Party agenda to take on unions in their states.

With the heart of the Tea Party’s agenda rejected by voters in Ohio, it is a good time to check in on its political power with an eye on the 2012 elections.

The most recent Washington Post/Pew Research poll found just 32 percent of Americans support the Tea Party. Fully 44 percent view the Tea Party negatively. That poll and others mark the lowest levels of support for the Tea Party since the movement began more than two years ago.

As the Tea Party falls out of favor, it faces a rising ideological opponent in the liberal Occupy Wall Street movement. Pew found that 39 percent of Americans support “OWS” while only 35 percent oppose the nascent movement. Another poll from CNN/ORC shows Occupy favored 36 percent to 19 percent. 

Support for the movement has remained relatively stable in the face of weeks of right-wing attacks alleging that they are anarchists and nihilists.

This shift in the public focus from the Tea Party to the Occupy Wall Street agenda suggests the battle for the House, Senate and presidency in 2012 is going to be about more than anger at President Obama’s inability to bring down high unemployment. It will center on protecting the middle class at a time of growing class inequality and discontent with the very rich — the bankers, brokers and corporate bosses.

That is why unions stand at the very top of the list of last Tuesday’s winners. If they had lost in Ohio it would have been a crushing blow and evidence of their inability to organize a political campaign to take advantage of big changes in the public mood.

Until their victory, unions had been in danger of losing all power as a political force. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership fell to a 70-year low last year with just 14.7 million workers still in unions, slightly fewer than 12 percent of the workforce.

But the unions proved last Tuesday that they can still win. And the biggest unions, the Service Employees International Union and AFL-CIO, are lending their people and money to the mostly young protesters out of shared economic and policy goals.

When pollsters ask Americans about the specific grievances of Occupy Wall Street, their agenda is extremely popular. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from last week found that 76 percent of Americans agree that the economic structure of the country favors the wealthy. 

Fifty-five percent of respondents to a recent poll conducted by The Hill said income inequality is a big problem. Another poll from Bloomberg found that 68 percent of Americans want to raise taxes on people making more than $250,000 a year.

The Occupy Wall Street movement and the Republican presidential primary have once again made “class warfare” part of our regular political lexicon. 

If this is truly a “war,” then the unions’ victory in Ohio is like the Battle of Saratoga during the Revolutionary War. It was the point at which the weaker side — the American colonists — scored a much-needed victory to boost morale and show the world that they could beat the British.

With the Super Committee due to issue its proposal for reining in the nation’s deficit in less than two weeks, the members of Congress who will vote on that proposal would do well to stop by the Capitol Rotunda and look at John Trumbull’s massive painting depicting the surrender of the British at Saratoga in 1777. And when they do, they should remember what happened in Ohio last week.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel. This column originally appeared on The Hill.com.

Juan Williams joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1997 as a contributor and is also a co-host of FNC's "The Five," where he is one of seven rotating Fox personalities. Additionally, he serves as FNC's political analyst, a regular panelist on "Fox News Sunday" and "Special Report with Bret Baier" and is a regular substitute host for "The O'Reilly Factor."