Not long after the anticorporate "Occupy Wall Street" protests began in New York, one question surfaced repeatedly: Could this be the beginning of a liberal movement to counter the tea party?
mplicit in the question, however, is a concession that many even on the left acknowledge: For several years now, the right has largely driven and dominated the national conversation.
But why, amid America's worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, has the upwelling of political activism been greater on the right?
When the United States has been through periods of deep economic anxiety before, the populist movements that mobilize ordinary citizens against an empowered elite have typically pushed the national agenda to the left. A century ago, they backed the idea of a graduated income tax.
But now, at a time of high unemployment, record foreclosures, a significant jump in poverty, and concerns about a possible new recession, populist outrage has largely focused on government as a problem rather than a source of economic cures.
"In general, for the past few years the enthusiasm has certainly been more on the right end of the spectrum," says Michael Dimock, a polling expert at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. It's "an antigovernment movement more than an anticorporate movement."
Political analysts cite several reasons. Some of the activity is a backlash against the president. Since President Obama is a Democrat, it's more likely that opposition will rise up on the right.
Another factor is that the nation's top priority, a dearth of jobs, is hard to fix, with neither the left nor right offering solutions that most of the public view as clear-cut winners. It's possible that many tea party supporters are attracted to the movement because it provides a clear target at which to vent – bloated government – even if that may not be the cause of the problem. Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup polls, uses this analogy: "If you're mad at work, you come home and kick the cat."
A third reason, some say, is that the right has found ways to steadily deepen its roots, while the left has seen key institutions such as labor unions wither.
It's a development decades in the making. Notably, Ronald Reagan steered the country toward greater skepticism of government and a stronger embrace of free-market economics. A parallel rise of conservative think tanks, as well as the political influence of Christian-right colleges and advocacy groups, helped spread this message.
By the time activists latched on to a 2009 rant by CNBC's Rick Santelli, who raised the idea of a modern-day tea party, the field had been prepared. The American right knew who its enemy was, and conservative politicians, donors, and media – notably Fox News – lavished attention and support on tea party rallies to help the movement grow.
But "how do we account for the relative silence of the left?" asked Michael Kazin, a Georgetown University historian, in a recent New York Times opinion column.
To be sure, the left has its own parallel groups and backers. But their clout has been diminishing, argues Mr. Kazin. Private-sector labor unions have been in steady decline, he notes, and other liberal groups have changed so they cater more to middle-class social causes (the environment, same-sex marriage) than to the economic concerns of ordinary workers.