Occupy Wall Street, The Tea Party… And Us

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The “Occupy Wall Street” movement is still too new to begin the kinds of definitive, structural analyses we did of the Tea Party. By the time the Nonprofit Quarterly had described the anatomy of the Tea Party, with its array of 501(c)(4)s, 501(c)(3)s, PACs, and local volunteer groups, the Tea Party movement had gelled somewhat, become institutionalized, and flexed its muscle within the national political party most attuned to Tea Party values of sharply reducing the size of government and attacking government social programs. (Remember, it was government efforts to help homeowners fight foreclosures that in 2009 spurred CNN correspondent Rick Santelli to call for his fellow conservatives to throw the metaphorical tea into the harbor.)

At NPQ, we don’t just write about nonprofits that have an IRS-designated 501(c) corporate status, we also report on nonprofit organizational actors and movements—which makes the Occupy movement of special interest to us. What are some of the important questions about the still incredibly young, only weeks-old Occupy movement?

  1.  Political power: A fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies told the San Francisco Chronicle that the “real challenge” is to transform the Occupy movement into something that “happen(s) politically.” The Tea Party certainly succeeded in that respect—indeed, that appears to have been one of its earliest objectives. The Occupy movement, however, seems primarily to be targeting the individual and corporate concentrations of wealth and, more broadly, a social and political system that privileges and protects wealth and disenfranchises those without it. Will the social movement against aggregations of wealth turn into a political movement to force the dispersion and redistribution of wealth that both national political parties resist? Like the Tea Partiers, the Occupy movement reflects a fundamental, often generalized public dissatisfaction with American politics and American society—a sort of social and cultural angst. There are continuing hints that some in the movement may drift toward supporting a third party, especially since, like the Tea Party, the messages from the Occupy groups more and more include not just concern about the system’s protection of concentrated corporate and individual wealth but also “government corruption.” The best analysis so far may have been Vice President Joe Biden’s. Noting that the Occupy movement has “a lot in common with the Tea Party,” Biden said, “Let’s be honest with each other. What is the core of that protest? The core is the bargain has been breached with the American people. The American people do not think the system is fair.”
  2. Opposing Democrats?: Remember that the Tea Party initially disrupted Republicans, not Democrats. Its first political muscle was in running Tea Party-aligned candidates against “establishment” Republicans in Republican primaries. Among the Republican casualties early on were Utah Senator Bob Bennett (unseated by two Tea Party candidates), Florida senatorial candidate Charlie Crist (who ran as an independent after losing to Marco Rubio), and Lisa Murkowski in Alaska (although after losing in the primary, she beat the Tea Party Republican in the general election), in addition to several establishment Republicans losing primaries to Tea Partiers such as Christine O’Donnell (senate in Delaware), Carl Paladino (governor in New York), Sharron Angle (senate in Nevada), Rand Paul (senate in Tennessee), and Ken Buck (senate in Colorado). While major Democratic leaders have made nice noises toward the Occupy protests, they can’t feel any more secure than did establishment Republicans in 2010.The Democratic party under President Obama has received tons of support from Wall Street interests, protected for the most part the hedge fund profiteers, and, under Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s direction, treated the record-profit-making, skimpy-lending Wall Street investment banks with kid gloves. That doesn’t quite fit message, such as it is, from the Occupy groups. In fact, if there is a message that unites the Tea Party with the Occupy protesters, it is their shared visceral opposition to the bank bailouts.
  3. Message: Critics suggest that the political message of the Occupy groups has been confused, or that multiple groups have attached themselves to the protests so that it is hard to figure out whether this is just a protest against the economic power of Wall Street or one that also incorporates opposition to the decade-long war in Afghanistan or support for Palestinian independence, etc. Remember that the Tea Party protests were much the same, adding content that some of the Tea Party backers thought made the Tea Party message diffused and sometimes confusing.
  4. Nonprofit infrastructure: It wasn’t long after the Tea Party movement gelled that a national infrastructure developed to provide support—and sometimes, to the chafing of some Tea Party activists, direction—from organizations such as Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, and the Tea Party Patriots. No comparable framework has emerged for the Occupy movement. The Alliance for Global Justice gets identified in several articles as the “nonprofit” entity that is handling donations for the Occupy movement (through Paypal). It functions as a fiscal sponsor for many politically progressive groups, and may be playing a similar role on behalf of Occupy Wall Street and other Occupy groups (a website at http://nycga.cc, the New York General Assembly of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, also raises money through links that go to AGJ). There is also an http://occupywallst.org/ website, though with no information about the people or organizations behind it—and it solicits donations through the commercial WePay. But donations are in the small change category. The online fundraising platform Kickstarter.com, usually a supporter of creative art and media projects, served as the venue for raising $75,000 to finance the publication of The Occupied Wall Street Journal—but that looks like the donations of 1,600 contributors, not one Koch- or Soros-like billionaire. Conservative critics have suggested that the Occupy movement is really an Astroturf political campaign financed by the Democrats or by the unions. There’s no indication of the Dems (usually expressed as the favorite bête noire of the conservatives, George Soros) having paid for the Occupy movement, and the union involvement seems to be something of mostly union locals endorsing and providing some logistical support to the protesters’ campsites. If there’s some Astroturf here, there’s not enough for anyone getting a turf burn in the Occupy movement.

Among the celebrities who have shown up to lend support to Occupy convenings, albeit mostly in New York where the media is most concentrated, have been actress Susan Sarandon, filmmaker Michael Moore, and actor-comedian Mike Myers. It’s probably fitting that Myers, a Canadian, was there. Some attribute the origins of the Occupy Wall Street effort to a July call for an Occupy Wall Street gathering in September to the Vancouver, British Columbia-based Adbusters, which describes itself as a “global network of culture jammers and creatives working to change the way information flows, the way corporations wield power, and the way meaning is produced in our society.” Adbusters adds, “Our aim is to topple existing power structures and forge a major shift in the way we will live in the 21st century.” Just as some of the Tea Party effort has developed followings overseas, the Occupy movement is clearly not restricted to the U.S., especially given its opposition to the Wall Street banks, which, despite having U.S. headquarters, are multinational or transnational in economic interests and sometimes identity. The occupytogether website lists various levels of meetings and gatherings in support of the Occupy Wall Street group in 1,347 communities worldwide—Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. Some might say that some of these groups are undoubtedly little more than the meet-ups of a few like-minded people who are politically sympathetic with Occupy messages and the Occupy ethos, but that’s no different and no less legitimate than the many small, almost across-the-backyard-fence gatherings of some of the local Tea Party operations.

Reporting on one of the Occupy Wall Street gatherings, Gail Collins of the New York Times reported on one unnamed young participant—whom she said had been “dubbed ‘the voice of people who are in the dark about what’s happening’”—standing up to condemn “the movement’s hierarchical tendencies,” saying “Finance is turning us into a 501-(c) nonprofit! I didn’t know about that!” Aside from the national infrastructure of the Tea Party, which knows how to watch its p’s and q’s concerning 501(c) tax-exempt corporate structures, many of the local Tea Party operations appeared either inherently or willfully ignorant and uninterested in adhering to the niceties of public charity status. In the press coverage of Occupy marches all around the nation, participants repeatedly identify themselves as working for nonprofits, though they are participating as individuals, not as representatives of their employers. Will the various collectivist or anarchistic strands of some of the Occupy movement troops lead to a similar eschewing of the nonprofit structure?

In an odd way, Paul Krugman’s lauding of the Occupy movement points out the problem for much of the liberal and mainstream nonprofit and foundation sector: “The protesters’ indictment of Wall Street as a destructive force, economically and politically, is completely right,” the prize-winning economist and pundit said. While the unions may not be getting much support from Wall Street, making their joining the protests relatively easy, much of the nonprofit sector is tied to the very concentration of wealth that the Occupy movement decries. Foundations are in many ways the epitome of the concentrated wealth of the United States. Some people criticize institutional and family philanthropy (and the charitable deduction that supports philanthropy) as part and parcel of the American reliance on rich people making decisions for everyone else, in that it gives wealthy, private individuals the ability to make social welfare decisions about tax exempt funds without public input and with minimal public scrutiny.

Even if one bypasses the critique of institutional philanthropy as part of the concentration of wealth, there is the specific philanthropy of the big banks and Wall Street firms that the Occupy movement is targeting. The “destructive force” that Krugman describes provides a lot of money to much of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit sector. If you simply focus on the financial sector and exclude other corporate philanthropic behemoths such as the pharmaceuticals, the oil companies (such as ExxonMobil), and the retailers (Wal-Mart), banks and investment companies are among the large corporate foundation grant makers in the nation (without even counting their giving that does not go through their foundation arms):

Rank among corporate foundations (2009)

Corporate foundation

Total foundation giving circa 2008

Total foundation giving circa 2009


The Bank of America Charitable Foundation, Inc.




GE Foundation




Wachovia Wells Fargo Foundation




The JP Morgan Chase Foundation




Wells Fargo Foundation




Citi Foundation




MetLife Foundation




The PNC Foundation

(Not in the top 50)



Nationwide Foundation




The Capital Group Companies Charitable Foundation




The Prudential Foundation




State Farm Companies




U.S. Bancorp Foundation




Allstate Foundation



(Note: In the top 50 in 2008 (but not 2009) were #26 Merrill Lynch & Co. Foundation, $28,285,542; #37, the NCC Charitable Foundation, $22,550,204; #38 the Fidelity Foundation, $22,502,303; #39 the Goldman Sachs Foundation, $22,088,655; and #50, the Northwestern Mutual Foundation, $19,624,744.)

Even for recession years, the banking sector was a big player in corporate philanthropy, and consequently, many nonprofits have been beneficiaries of the philanthropic largesse of these corporations. Will nonprofits be willing to eschew the support they get from the Wall Street sector any more easily than the Democrats the campaign contributions they get from these firms in order to line up behind the Occupy movement? For better or for worse, the nonprofit sector is strongly connected to institutional philanthropy and even to the philanthropy of Wall Street. Even in the recession, as banks were being bailed out by the federal government’s TARP program they managed to distribute large dollops of grants to nonprofits and campaign contributions to politicians. In Occupy Wall Street terms, the continuing philanthropy and campaign largesse of TARP-subsidized banks is something of a case study of their critique of a system that privileges and protects concentrated Wall Street wealth.

Although the Tea Party movement incorporated plenty of discordant voices, particularly the sharply contrasting economic conservatives and social conservatives, the Occupy Wall Street movement has also attracted multiple causes riding the core motivation of the protesters against Wall Street. In the end, the Tea Party both gave direction to the Republican Party and was absorbed by the Republican establishment, which was made evident in the Republican Congressional posture toward Democrats during recent budget negotiations. Krugman thinks that the Occupy movement is a second chance for President Obama and the Democrats—an opportunity to reconnect with progressive activists who have been somewhat sacrificed in the Democrats’ desperate and generally fruitless efforts to find bipartisan areas of agreement. Time will tell whether the Democrats embrace the Occupy movement like the Republicans drank the Tea Party’s tea.

  • Ann Grove

    Might the redistribution of wealth be at the heart of this movement? Many believe that the wealth of many corporations and investors comes at the expense of workers’ wages, benefits and quality of life. They see corporations sending jobs overseas, expecting more work for the same or less pay, and resisting the investment of their own dollars in the R & D that will create jobs in the future. Instead, they see money that is donated by wealthy CEO’s and profitable corporations going to the causes of their choice and/or being conveyed with limited tax consequences to their heirs. Workers want, I think, to believe it’s possible to exchange honest labor and intellectual effort for a wage which will meet their immediate needs, provide for their health care needs, provide (with careful management) for the needs of their children, aging relatives and disabled family members if they also access government programs, and supplement their own retirement investments. When they see top executives getting multi-million dollar salaries and benefits at the same time they are laying off hundreds of workers who make $24,000/year or less with benefits, it can feel like America no longer strives for a common good.
    A redistribution of wealth that does not readily allow accrual of great sums of investment dollars and/or CEO wealth would clearly change the fundraising efforts of many nonprofits. Less emphasis would likely have to be put towards wooing large donors and proposing grants from corporate foundations. Some charities would wane while others would flourish. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if the need for many nonprofits would wane because more families and individuals were able to live without needing their assistance? This might be a cause worth supporting, even for those of us in the nonprofit sector who might have to adapt to the changes.

  • Bill Bro

    😥 Redistribution of wealth leaves just one “charity” standing: the federal government. This leaves the many dependent upon the whims of the few.

  • Regina Podhorin-Zilinski

    I spent several hours at Occupy Wall Street yesterday to get a first hand view of how they are organized and functioning. While part of it is old fashioned community organizing, there is a newness to how they are functioning that defies description at this point. It is organized chaos- intentionally so in some ways. I don’t see how how existing legal structures will work for them – I’m guessing they will evolve into something very new and different.
    Those of us in the nonprofit sector need to watch this evolution carefully – it feels like the very beginning of something different. I don’t think they even know where it will go and are creating it on the fly. I must say it was the most energizing couple of hours I’ve spent in a long time!
    Russell Simmons, Al Sharpton and Dick Gregory were all there but definitely were not the main attraction – they looked out of place and not at all in leadership roles and they knew it!

  • C. T. Lytle

    While the numbers can and do indicate financial (Wall Street) firms as some of the most philanthropic, it’s worth considering that much of their largess, at least retail corps, is in sponsorship and cause marketing product promotions, which makes them look quite good although the money is actually coming thru them from the public (customers). This is possibly where the power of the Occupy movement may reside…mobilizing consumers/customers for or against corporate greed. If Occupy the Streets begins to influence how and where we spend our money, it could have an enormous impact.

  • Patrick

    So does the current system, where the majority of wealth is collected in the hands of a few individuals and mega corporations. There is a lot of room for a middle ground between our current system, which concentrates the wealth in the hands of the few at the expense of the many, and a socialist state. For the past thirty years conservatives have been preaching that if you allow the wealthy to get even wealthier, it will trickle down and benefit the rest of us. There are millions of Americans, and billions of people in the world, who would beg to differ.

  • Bill Bro

    😮 There is a disturbing similarity between the posters: http://tinyurl.com/soviet-propaganda

  • tm

    OWS is getting tax deductible contributions through a fiscal sponsor, which is considerably slimier than the Tea Party, most of the infrastructure of which was 501c4.

  • Ralph Rosenberg

    The occupy effort has occupied the attention of the public, media, and public officials. To the extent that some inchoate concerns are being reflected in the effort is healthy. While the comparisons to the tea party might be partially correct, the occupy effort should not be limited to what media pundits are unintentionally doing–pointing the effort in certain directions.

  • Bill Bro

    😀 Well, OWS certainly is a “movement,” isn’t it?

  • michael99

    Love the poster…the red/black motif, the goosestepping, the promise of a glorious revolutionary future.

    My question, was this designed by a mole in order to purposefully scare the heck out of the middle class?