When the Tea Party came into being in 2009, it had a number of things that allowed it to quickly grow and obtain legitimacy. Perhaps the most important was Fox News, which took about three seconds to turn itself into a round-the-clock promotion machine for the new movement. In short order, the Tea Party had funding and practical assistance from some elite Republican players, like Dick Armey's FreedomWorks. Perhaps because of those things, it quickly gained the unequivocal support of virtually the entire Republican Party.
The question now is, could the Occupy Wall Street protests become as influential? There are some obstacles in their way. The first is that the media are inclined to see any left-wing protest as absurd on its face and either ignore it or treat it as not a legitimate expression of Americans' concerns but as a bunch of stupid hippies chanting stupid hippie slogans and having stupid hippie drum circles. The coverage of the protests is increasing in volume and is so far a mixed bag in tone, but that underlying theme -- that these are not serious people -- is still there.
The second problem is that the target of the protesters' ire -- the economic elite in general, Wall Street in particular -- is not something establishment Democrats really want to go after. Sure, they favor raising the top income tax rate a few points and want more oversight, but they also want to raise money from Wall Street and maintain good relations with the investor class. In contrast, the Tea Party's enemy was Barack Obama, which made every Republican eager to embrace it.
That means the movement won't get the legitimacy that comes from having the elite figures to whom the media pay attention validate it and its message. They're already getting labor unions and lefty organizations signing on, which can help, but it's not like you're going to see Obama or Nancy Pelosi go out and address the rallies, with cameras in tow, nor are you going to see members of Congress go on Meet the Press and declare themselves part of this movement, as you did with Republicans and the Tea Party.
Not yet, anyway. But who knows -- if the movement generates enough momentum, maybe the Democratic political leadership might just see it in their own interests to join in. We did see Jay Carney get asked about it at a press briefing, but he answered while managing not to say a word about the protests themselves. Right now, the stance of the White House and congressional Democrats is "I sympathize with their concerns," which is a long way from "I'm one of them."