Tea Party for the Left: US Uncut

Like their right-wing opponents, US Uncut activists tap into Americans' anger toward a system perceived as favoring interest groups over the common good. But they're sensitive about the Tea Party comparisons, writes Ben Adler.

It's an open but dirty secret in liberal circles that their disdain for the Tea Party movement is tinged with jealousy. Having watched Republicans run up the deficit, expand government power, and preside over rising inequality and unemployment, liberals are indignant and baffled that the mass response has come in the form of an anti-tax, anti-spending and anti-regulation movement on the right. Progressives may mock the tri-corner hats and shaky grasp of economics of Tea Party rallies, but they also gaze longingly at the massive crowds and wonder, "Why can't we get this many people to come out?"

The answer, it turns out, is that turnout tends to go up when you're against something—the Iraq War circa 2004 for the left, health care reform in 2009 for the right—rather than for something. That's why, as The Nation reported a few weeks ago, the new Conservative government in Britain has spawned a Tea Party-like movement on the left: UK Uncut, which protests against Prime Minister David Cameron's plans to cut social spending, saying they would be unnecessary if British corporations didn't avoid paying taxes through creative use of loopholes in the tax code. A series of protests at the stores and facilities of such corporations generated a media storm, most of it positive, even from right-leaning outlets. In response, the British government launched a crackdown on tax avoidance, raking in £2 billion (roughly $3.3 billion).

Across the U.S., progressives who read The Nation article thought: Why can't we do the same thing here? With Republicans now controlling the U.S. House and the majority of statehouses, there are plenty of painful proposed budget cuts for liberals to oppose. So off they went, just like the Tea Party Patriots before them, creating web sites, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. As the first disparate organizers found each other online, they coalesced into a coordinating committee, with a single web site, www.usuncut.org, and organizing a simultaneous national action.

On Feb. 26, roughly 2,000 participants in more than 50 cities showed up with signs and fliers for passersby at branches of Bank of America. They chose Bank of America because, according to Forbes, the banking giant paid no federal income taxes on earnings of $4.4 billion in 2009, thanks to various deductions and credits—plus taking losses on investments in foreign subsidiaries off its tax return. The top executives at Bank of America, which received $45 billion in bailout money from the federal government, were each paid between $6 million and $30 million that year.

US Uncut shares the Tea Party movement's affection for street theater, albeit with a more urbane, ironic sensibility.

In Washington, D.C., the Bank of America branch closed early that day—for which US Uncut, as the movement calls itself, credits its more than 100 protesters on site. "Billionaires got bonuses, bailouts and tax cuts, too, the least they can do is pay taxes like the rest of us do," says Adam Clayton, 28, a media analyst in D.C. who organized the protest there.

That a handful of unpaid neophyte activists could do all this in just three weeks, without raising a cent, is a testament to the way technology has distributed political organizing power, as recently demonstrated by everyone from the Tea Party movement to popular uprisings in the Middle East. But organizers of US Uncut—"the unorganization" as Clayton describes it—bristle when asked if they seek to imitate the Tea Party, even though the article that inspired them made the comparison explicit. "I'd be careful about equating us to the Tea Party," says Carl Gibson, a 23-year-old bar bouncer in Jackson, Mississippi, who is US Uncut's leading organizer. "They have corporate financing from the Koch brothers; Fox News was very closely aligned with the Tea Party from the start. I'm modeling this movement after UK Uncut. It depends on organizing through social media and word of mouth."

But the structure of US Uncut is virtually identical to that of the Tea Party Patriots: a loose network of local groups that coordinate nationally through the Internet. They also share the Tea Party movement's affection for street theater, albeit with a more urbane, ironic sensibility: US Uncut members entered Bank of America branches on Saturday to present fake checks to bank tellers for $1.5 billion—the amount the bank would have handed the government if it had paid the 35 percent corporate income tax on earnings of $4.4 billion—while in New York City subways members read and handed out a screed sarcastically advocating for spending cuts and corporate tax evasion.

Methods are not all that US Uncut has in common with the Tea Party movement. They also are tapping are into the same vein of anger toward a political system many Americans perceive as favoring well-connected interest groups over the common good. "If they can shine a light from the left on the corrupt relationship between big business and big government, they can tap into the equivalent feeling, on the left, that has motivated the Tea Parties," says Phil Kerpen, vice president for policy at Americans for Prosperity, a fiscally conservative advocacy organization that works with Tea Party groups.

Those similarities to the Tea Party don't prove that US Uncut is being disingenuous by shying away from the comparison: all grassroots social movements will seek to harness the country's zeitgeist and modern means of communication, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum.

So does that mean US Uncut could actually form an alliance with the groups on the right that also have expressed a desire to see the tax code simplified, without deductions and credits that favor the companies with the best lobbyists at the expense of everyone else? Probably not. While conservatives such as Kerpen agree that companies should all pay the same tax rate, they would use the extra money to lower tax rates, while US Uncut would use it to prevent cuts to domestic programs such as early-childhood education and college aid for students from low-income families. That's an insurmountable hurdle to collaboration, say leaders from both sides.

But conservatives still welcome US Uncut to the political arena. "It's always good when citizens start looking at any situation, it really opens the debate," says Dawn Wildman, a national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots. "I don't know where [US Uncut] will go, but it at least puts another discussion on the table."

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Ben Adler is a writer for Newsweek and The Daily Beast covering politics and policy. Ben joined Newsweek in 2009 as national affairs editor of Newsweek.com. He was previously a staff writer at Politico. His writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Columbia Journalism Review, The Nation, The American Prospect, Next American City and The Washington Monthly and his work has been reprinted in books such as Clued in to Politics and The Contemporary Reader. You can follow Ben on Twitter.