This piece is part of the The Whiplash Decade, a package on the wild ride that was the 2010s.
A decade ago, everyone was hungry. The Great Recession, and subsequent bailouts, had emptied many pantries and created a new set of cravings among the 99% who had been left behind — for justice, for hope, for security. Fear and rage dominated. Disgruntled white conservatives had commandeered the nation’s attention, and so too had their reactionary complaints about the pace of the nation’s recovery. Bankers weren’t the problem, it was big government lavishing charity on the mooching class. “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” CNBC’s Rick Santelli shouted on air in February 2009 in a rant that would give the Tea Party its name and origin story.
The men and women who caused the crash of 2008 had lots of bathrooms and little trouble with their bills. For their sins, the government largely left them alone. But now, as the decade shambles to a merciful end, they look a lot more vulnerable than they did in 2010. Public sentiment has turned against the rich, against families like the pill-peddling Sacklers, against hedge fund managers and CEOs. A shift occurred, but how did it happen, and what took so long?
White conservatives had the proof they’d wanted since Election Day: The nation’s first black president only looked out for his own, and screw everyone else.
The Tea Party itself is a clue. It owes its unholy life to several factors: racist outrage at the Obama presidency, an effective right-wing media ecosystem, and the recession. The earliest benefactors of Tea Party rage were homeowners wounded by subprime mortgages. When Obama finally authorized some relief, white conservatives had the proof they’d wanted since Election Day: The nation’s first black president only looked out for his own, and screw everyone else.
But the Tea Party didn’t go unchallenged for long. A year after its activists started protesting Obama and insufficiently pure Republicans, another movement offered a radically different explanation for who was to blame for the recession. In September 2011, a multigenerational group of left-wing activists took over Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan and declared themselves Occupy Wall Street. In contrast not only to the Tea Party but to the political establishment of the time, Occupy trained its anger on the top 1%, its allies on Capitol Hill, and on an economic system that intentionally exploited all but the fabulously wealthy.
For most of the decade, the Tea Party looked more successful, at least on an electoral basis. It powered Republicans to victory in 2010 and 2014, seizing Congress; its conspiratorial obsessions and explicit racism foreshadowed the election of Donald Trump — who understands little the way he understands white rage, and ran not quite as a class traitor but as a competent and sympathetic boss. Trump promised steady work, and tacitly, the freedom to harass women in the office. It was bread and circuses by another name.
But now, in the final days of the decade, Occupy might get the final word. For many, the recession never really ended. In 2019, the Census Bureau reported that income inequality reached a 50-year high. Student loan debt has surpassed $1 trillion, due in large part to state legislatures slashing support for higher education during the recession. Young voters find themselves unable to pay off their loans, let alone buy homes or start families. “There’s a ready-made population to be radicalized in student debtors,” an activist with Occupy Student Debt said. “Everybody I know suffers from it.”
In Trump, the Tea Party has an ideal president, willing to crush the poor under his feet, while somehow convincing the trampled that he’s in their corner.
Now millions of Americans sound a bit like Occupiers, supporting candidates who say they’ll protect the 99% in ways that Obama never did. Popular support for higher taxes on wealth is high and bipartisan. Medicare for All isn’t a fringe idea, but a broadly popular proposal, supported by more than 60% of Americans. Though Occupy never defined its ambitions around the White House, the Democratic Party’s next nominee for president might be someone who delivers on some of its old demands. Two of the party’s three frontrunners are Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, and Elizabeth Warren, a liberal on a crusade to reform capitalism.
The crisis clarified the priorities of the powerful and created new ones for those most harmed by it. In Trump, the Tea Party has an ideal president, willing to crush the poor under his feet, while somehow convincing the trampled that he’s in their corner. But billionaires finally sound a little frightened, as Sanders likes to say. Take, for example, Michael Bloomberg. Years after he evicted Occupy from Zuccotti Park as mayor of New York City, Bloomberg is so worried by the prospect of new taxes on the rich that he’s dropping millions to run for president as a Democrat to apparently stop Sanders and Warren. But he may soon find that, to many voters, wealth isn’t proof of success but complicity in a system that oppresses them. The rich are back on the menu.