JUST AS the emergence of the Tea Party has remade conservative politics in the last two years, the Occupy Boston protests in Dewey Square, near the local headquarters of the Federal Reserve Bank, signals the beginning of a corresponding movement on the left. More importantly, it will show that dissatisfaction with the economy, and the role of elites in causing it, is not a left-right, Democratic-Republican issue. It’s about creating an economy that’s fair and raises all boats equally.
The original Tea Party events gave voice to grass-roots conservatives who are more skeptical of Wall Street and government spending than the Republican establishment. By the same token, the Occupy Boston protests, and their Occupy Wall Street counterparts in New York, reflect a sense of outrage that Washington - including President Obama and congressional Democrats - has been too conciliatory toward big-money interests.
The bulk of Occupy Boston protesters appear to have a focused set of complaints: that the financial-services industry bears a disproportionate share of the blame for the nation’s woes; that despite being bailed out by taxpayers the industry has fended off many efforts at tougher regulation; that inequality is growing between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else; and that for most Americans, even the most reliable method of gaining economic security - pursuing an education - can leave behind huge debts and, at the moment, limited employment prospects.
In free-speech bastions like Cambridge and Boston, it’s easy to overlook public protests as part of the scenery. A decade ago, protesters gathered at international trade meetings under the banner of the “anti-globalization movement,’’ but in practice seemed to be espousing a bewildering variety of goals, from legalizing marijuana to freeing prison inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal. A few over-the-top slogans touted by this weekend’s protesters - “capitalism is organized crime,’’ for instance - and a YouTube endorsement from Noam Chomsky suggested a kinship to those earlier protests.
But the anti-Wall Street protesters seem aware of the dangers of a diffuse message, and are scrambling to unify behind a few concrete proposals. It’s the best way to start the conversation that they feel is lacking in the halls of power. The quality of their proposals and the clarity of their message will determine how effective they’ll be.
Already, the Occupy Boston and Occupy Wall Street protests have succeeded in calling the bluff of a Tea Party movement that formed in reaction to financial bailouts - but has supported lawmakers who’ve resisted tougher government scrutiny of Wall Street.
Now, as both major parties gear up for an election campaign that promises to involve hundreds of millions of dollars donated by special interests, the emergence of Occupy Boston offers a reminder that President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner do not define the edges of the political spectrum of the United States. Even if the current protests wane, they underscore the need to bring more voices into the discussion.