People affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street protests browse through...

People affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street protests browse through books in the library section of Zuccotti Park. Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Burton

What is it about the growing anti-Wall Street protests that has failed to capture the public imagination?

Occupy Wall Street, now into its second month, is inspiring similar protests nationwide, but according to Pew Research Center data released this week, only 17 percent of Americans are paying attention to them. That's far fewer than were following the nascent tea party movement when it was receiving comparable levels of coverage in 2009.

Conservative pundits and politicians have dismissed the protests as lazy theatrics by "dirty hippies" with nothing better to do, and some have gone so far as to call the protesters a "mob" and "anti-American." The law enforcement crackdown around the country has been disproportionately violent to a largely peaceful protest, and the protesters themselves come from many different walks of life.

Even early coverage by liberal and moderate media outlets focused on the apparent silliness of the participants making airheaded statements and dressing like zombies. Of course, early coverage of the tea party also focused on eccentric signage and wacky costumes, and likewise emphasized the lack of a concrete agenda or unifying theme.

So what was it about the tea party that won the attention of the public, captured the energy of voters, and was able to produce serious candidates at all levels of local and national elected office? And why do so few people, including Democrats and independents, seem to feel that the anti-Wall Street encampments can do the same?

Perhaps it's because the American left has a long tradition of protesting, often drawing showy crowds of young people less interested in engaging the political system and more interested in rejecting it. By comparison, it was relatively noteworthy to see generally better off, older, conservative American tea partyers take to the streets in costumed rage.

But while a range of people -- including working-class Americans, religious leaders, veterans and large labor unions -- are joining the protests, the movement is still being portrayed as dangerously left-leaning. Many of the issues raised by the protesters -- regulation of financial institutions, job creation, support for important and increasingly vulnerable public institutions that promote social justice and equality -- are not so radical. Some are the very foundations of our particular version of the moderated free-market economy.

Over the past several weeks in Zuccotti Park, protesters have created an alternative community. They are managing individuals' daily needs, as well as the collective's long-term strategy and finances, in unique ways. There are working groups, legal aid, medical assistance, translation services, and ongoing forums to develop and vote on agendas. There's even a library. Far from being dirty campers, they seem to be experimenting in new ways of living and working together.

A single issue or detailed policy agenda isn't required to transition a group of protesters into a sustainable political movement -- the tea party, with its conflicting positions between the cultural conservatives and states rightists/libertarians, still does not have these. What the Wall Street protests need, it seems, is some re-branding. Where "occupy" smacks of anti-establishment, youth-powered alienation, the "tea party" hearkens back to American political traditions and speaks to reclaiming the political process.

It remains to be seen if these protesters can capture their brand and, in doing so, capture the voice and imagination of the unheard Americans struggling under the weight of a foundering economy and stagnant political system. Either way, it looks like they're not going away anytime soon.

 

Kavitha Rajagopalan is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute."