WASHINGTON — 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, Vanessa ”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.
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.