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.
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?
His tea party friends had warned Schissler not to engage with demonstrators they considered dangerous. And Schissler did run into some odd folks, such as “a 9/11 truther who was going on about the Jews controlling everything,” he said. But he also found people on the same page when it comes to corporate bailouts and the idea that politicians are too easily swayed by those with big money.
“The truth is, we got some on our side who are pretty out there, too,” Schissler said. “When you talk to these Occupy people, there’s differences — your wonderful institution is my bogeyman and vice versa. But we agree government should be made unbribable. We agree that the Founders never envisioned the government bailing out GM or big banks. We have some common ground.”
Vanesa “Vas” Littlecrow kept voting to throw out the bums, and out they went, but nothing ever seemed to change.
Her neighborhood in Minneapolis grew rougher as more and more people lost work. Littlecrow, who grew up in Puerto Rico, reacted differently from most of her friends. A painter and comic book artist, she was surrounded mainly by leftists who wanted the government to take a stronger hand in managing the economy. Littlecrow, 37, became ever more conservative, even libertarian. In the early tea party rallies, she saw a joyful expression of individuals who valued freedom of speech and ideas, people who knew that “our country started as a bunch of guys who were fed up with being taxed and seeing nothing in return.”
Littlecrow jumped in, wrote signs, attended rallies, blogged ad infinitum. Then she got married and moved 80 miles out into the prairie, to her husband’s home town of 1,300 people. He grows corn, potatoes and beans. She draws a comic called “Dissident Priest.” And she spends time — a lot of time — on the Web, diving into debates on political sites.
From afar, she watched as the tea party changed, in her view, “becoming the religious wing of the Republican Party, when the people who started the tea party didn’t want anything to do with parties or religion.”
Now her Twitter aggregator of 120 news sources started filling with reports about Occupy Wall Street. Littlecrow started spending half the night on Google Plus, chatting with hundreds of friends and foes, probing the Occupy rebels about what they believed.
“I don’t agree with everything your movement does, but I sympathize with your cause and agree on our common enemy,” she wrote. She warned Occupy that it would be co-opted by unions and Democrats, just as the tea party was “hijacked” by religious groups and Republicans. She warned that news coverage would “focus on the movement’s most repulsive elements.”
She egged the Occupiers on, wishing them success against an oligarchy of big institutions that manipulate government against the interests of the people.
The letter went viral, eliciting hundreds of comments on political sites. Were the two movements finding a common language? On her farm far from Wall Street, Littlecrow was astounded by the reaction.
“It just ballooned,” she said.
Littlecrow doesn’t expect that the tea party or Occupy movements will result in basic change. Politicians will always answer to those who fund their campaigns, she said. But she sees value in pushing ahead.
“If someone’s an alcoholic,” she said, “the chances you’re going to stop that are really pretty low. But if you don’t at least acknowledge your problem and get angry about it, there’s nothing you can do. We can disagree about the finish line, but if we don’t speak out, we don’t even get near the finish to see what it could look like.”
Tobacco Thom is one of Occupy D.C.’s best-known residents. He’s the tall guy with the scraggly beard — a description that distinguishes him from not many men among the 94 tents at McPherson Square. But he’s instantly recognizable because he’s the guy with the coffee can full of cigarettes, free for the asking.
Tobacco Thom is Thom Reges, 26, who expects to remain on the square through the cold months. “I’m from Michigan,” he said. “Your winter doesn’t scare me.”
Reges is here because there are no jobs back home; because even after he moved to Virginia and got certified as a sign language interpreter, he could not find work; and because the rules of the road he learned growing up seem to no longer apply.
Reges, raised — as he said is true of nearly everyone at Occupy D.C. — as a liberal Democrat, always assumed he would work in the auto parts industry, but then carmakers cut way back and there were no jobs.
So he went to college, but ran out of money. So he trained as an interpreter, and that well ran dry, too.
Which is how he found himself in the park, talking with a tea party member.
They agreed on the problem: a power structure that lets elected officials pay lip service to the voters and then do the bidding of the companies and unions that pay their way.
They agreed on what got us here: Wall Street firms that made irresponsible bets that brought down the housing market, employers that exported jobs by the millions, ever-widening income inequality across the nation.
They found common ground about tactics: Whether through tea party rallies or Occupy encampments, it’s imperative to become an irritant, to grab the attention of fellow Americans who might otherwise watch a TV dance contest.
But there would be no “Kumbaya” moment. Their differences over solutions were too great. They both found President Obama to be a huge disappointment, but the tea party man wanted a president who would liberate business, reduce spending and cut taxes, and Reges craved a leader who would make government an activist in creating jobs, building infrastructure and wielding tax authority to reduce inequalities. “We voted for Obama for change, hope, creating new jobs, and what we see is concessions to the right again and again,” Reges said.
Still, he strolls the park every day looking for more tea party types to engage.
“We would love to be an example of what Congress should be doing — negotiate and find a middle ground,” he said. “Staying at home and grumbling wasn’t getting us anywhere. We tried voting and that didn’t work. Coming here and being an eyesore to let the people know there are disenfranchised Americans here makes us feel like we’re doing something.”