Vas Littlecrow is a longtime Tea Party activist who has joined the Occupy… (/COURTESY OF VAS LITTLECROW )
Wayne Schissler walked the four blocks from his workplace to the small Occupy Allentown protest to show the young demonstrators that a tea party member is not a monster. What he learned after a few hours of talk surprised him.
“They didn’t stink, and they weren’t on drugs,” he said. “I could see me being them, 30 years ago.”
Fifteen hundred miles away in rural Minnesota, Vas Littlecrow, a tea party die-hard since the movement’s early days, let the Internet noise about Occupy Wall Street wash over her, leaving her alternately annoyed and intrigued. She went on Google Plus to debate the Occupiers, “and they started saying things that clicked with me,” she said. “This was deja vu with how I got into the tea party.”
At the Occupy D.C. encampment at McPherson Square, Thom Reges, who plans to live in a tent till spring, spent the better part of a morning last week on a park bench debating America’s plight with a tea party member. They clashed over whether government should do more or less to put people back to work but agreed that both political parties do little or nothing for average Americans.
Although many organizers of the two populist efforts view their counterparts from the other end of the spectrum as misguided or even evil, attitudes among the rank and file of the tea party and Occupy Wall Street are often much more accepting and flexible. They start out with different views about the role of government, but in interviews and online discussions they repeatedly share many of the same frustrations, as well as a classically American passion for fixing the system.
No one expects the tea party and Occupy movements to merge forces, but their adherents are discovering that their stories are often strikingly similar: They searched for jobs and came up empty. They found work, but their pay barely covered food and rent, with nothing left over even to buy an old car. They saw their towns empty out as young people moved away in search of money and meaning.
The stories their parents and teachers told them about how to make it in America have come to seem like fairy tales from a magical but foreign place.
The two movements share a cynicism about the political process. But many people in both groups are also resiliently optimistic, almost irrationally so. They believe that if good people simply refuse to play the game as it has come to be played, the Founders’ vision can again inspire a land of the free, a nation that lives up to the promise of “e pluribus unum” — out of many, one.
The tea partyer
Wayne Schissler has watched his employer lay off a third of its staff. He’s 54, a machinist at a small shop in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley that has survived because big companies aren’t buying new equipment, instead asking people like Schissler to fix their old stuff.
He can get worked up about Big Oil and Big Pharma and the forces that seem to thrive even when most people are struggling.
“You look up and see these people who have a billion dollars, and I have $10, and you can get angry,” he said.
He had a bit of that in him back around the last congressional election, when he joined a local tea party group. He had quit a good union job to take a chance at rising to a higher level in a smaller shop. Maybe he could get out of machine work and more into computers.
But that didn’t happen. People weren’t so much getting promoted as barely holding on to what they had.
“Such is life,” Schissler said. He has mellowed somewhat with age, and these days, he said, “I don’t get angry, because I remember when I was 19 and working minimum wage, looking with envy at the cement and paper-bag mills that paid better than the textile mill I was in. Then I got there and realized, I’m still not rich. What’s the point of envying the guy on the next rung up?”
So if he’s okay with where he is, why join a movement to confront the powerful with the reality of a downwardly mobile America?
Schissler has thought about this: “People say, ‘You tea party people are opposed to your own interests, arguing for lower taxes for the rich.’ And I say, ‘You’re right. We’re not here with our hands out.’ I really try not to be covetous. Maybe I just don’t have the ambition to be rich.”
He remains proud of an ethic that has served his family for generations: Do your work and make your own way, even if that means a modest living. Where he gets frustrated is when that formula no longer works. Or when the government spends money on stuff he considers unnecessary.
The president’s health-care overhaul meant Schissler’s daughter could stay on his insurance into her mid-20s. “That’s nice,” he said, “but I could have afforded to pay for that insurance policy. Why is the government” issuing such a mandate?