American Precariat?

A reporter from the Michigan Daily called me today, asking for my views on Occupy Wall Street, the protest that is finally beginning to get significant media attention and is inspiring similar actions elsewhere. I declined to comment — it’s not exactly my area of expertise — but I actually have some thoughts.

Occupy Wall Street protest on Sept. 26 (Flickr: PaulS)

A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay on the puzzling question of why there is no American precariat.

Huh? Pre-cari-what? you might ask. And I’d say, “I rest my case: you haven’t even heard of it.” “The precariat” is a clever neologism to describe a loose set of protest movements in Europe, in existence since the late 1990s. It’s clever because it combines the Marxist concept of the proletariat and the idea of precarity, or precariousness. Here’s how I described it in my essay:

Precarity, a consequence of the neoliberal dismantling of the European welfare state, activists charge, refers to conditions in which work is increasingly uncertain or short-term, with weakened benefits or entirely without them (and, for an increasing set of interns, even without pay), where previously strong protections against firing and layoffs are eroded, and where unemployment benefits are weakened or more draconian than in the past. The creation of such conditions is “precarization.”

What interested me about the concept of precarity was that it described, in some ways, the conditions that had, at least according to some interpretations, been true of the United States for decades. I argued the different way vulnerability is understood in the political cultures of countries associated with the “European Social Model,” on the one hand, and the United States, on the other, helped explain the difference: commentators as early as Tocqueville had observed that Americans valued enlightened self-interest and the idea of overcoming difficulties on your own. Heck, Ben Franklin had observed and argued for it!

EuroMayDay 2011 (Flickr: Rasander Tyskar)

My point in the essay was not to criticize or defend American or European political cultures (although I did point out the European Social Model had been sustained in part by exclusionist and, frankly, racist policies and culture). I was just interested in thinking about the curious difference.

The essay came out in 2009; I had written its first draft in 2007, just before the financial crisis and the Great Recession. There were already some signs that the changing conditions were affecting the way some Americans thought about their future and particularly about their vulnerability, and I acknowledged them in the essay.

Things have changed a lot in the last couple of years. My colleague Lisa Disch has suggested the Tea Party movement might be considered the American precariat. There’s much to be said for the idea: the Tea Party movement is, in some important ways, a protest movement about the same sorts of things as the European precariat.

But one might argue that the Wall Street protest is even more an example of political activism along the lines of the European precariat. There are lots of young people, who indeed face a pretty grim labor market, even college graduates. And the tactics — the politics of spectacle, of the use of humor without much mirth — resemble the Euro May Day protests over the last several years. Whether the protests are successful — or even well-justified, correctly targeted, sensible — is beside my point here. I certainly don’t envy the conditions even University of Michigan find themselves in these days, and it seems many are beginning to think of those conditions in new ways. But, still, “Interesting” is all I’ll say, from the safety of tenure and salary, and from the perspective of a disinterested political theorist.

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About Mika LaVaque-Manty

I'm a professor of political science at the University of Michigan. I'm a philosopher by training, and I teach political theory.

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16 Comments on “American Precariat?”

  1. krsau Says:

    What is security anymore? Back home I heard stories of people regaling me of stories when they left high school and already had jobs lined up in factories that would place them within the middle class inside of a few years. This unfortunately is a fantasy that we can longer wish for nowadays. In the modern world anybody anywhere can complete almost any job. There is no security in many major markets of our economy due to the fact that American workers, albeit more productive, are to expensive to maintain.

    So where can we find security nowadays? With the Occupy Wall Street protesters we are pleading for this security from our government. This is a message that states that our government, to whom we give power, should look out for our self interests. This contrasts greatly with the nostalgic view of the post WWII ideals of “work hard and you can make it” we saw for many decades.

    Tocqueville wrote about how Americans were self interested to the point they were willing to help the government to provide a better environment for themselves. This contrasts with Malcolm X’s speech where he promoted individual effort and no reliance upon the government. In today’s economy it is hard to say what will be the true solution that shall provide security to the working force of Americans.

    Perhaps, like many other problems, the solution is to compromise. Maybe we should demand and vote into power a government that would pass measures to provide security for the work force. While on the other hand the American workforce needs to make a push as a culture for to outproduce its international competition providing security for itself. Either way the American people bear the load of securing its self interests.

    • Steve Dougherty Says:

      I somewhat doubt that it’s realistic for people to expect that the government can turn job security and quality back to the “good old days.” Governmental influence on markets, while important for things such as environmental or safety regulations, seems somewhat of a blunt instrument. As much as it may like to, the government demonstrably has little capability to improve widespread economic conditions, which are ultimately needed for a strong hiring environment. If I recall correctly, it also used to be the case that people would work for a single firm until retirement, which might seem stifling today.

  2. Baihan Li Says:

    It might be a little bit strange to claim that my comment will not address the opinion of the blog. Well, this is because that I do have something more interesting to say about this protest.

    In fact, countries other than the U.S.A seem to care more about the protest, for their own purpose.

    I actually heard of this protest 8 days ago, and, most interestingly, it is my mother that informed me about the protest over phone. When she warned me not to involve in the protest, I was actually surprised: what? A protest? Where is the protest?

    Therefore I searched the New York Times. A report on September 17 describe that there were dozens of people on the Wall Street. In fact, I was not able to distinguish the goal of the protest from the report, though the report described that protesters were showing their anger over the oligarchy, the financial system and the government. Then, three days ago, one of my friends in New York told me topic like anti-Chinese government.

    Though the protest is disorganized and poorly influential at the very beginning, I felt as if America was going to be turned over when I read news in Chinese newspaper. Differently from reports in U.S.A and my confusion with the final goal of the protest, reports from China flooded in. One of the major newspapers in China reported that the public had sharply pointed out the financial problems in the system. Meanwhile, it also described how the society was into this protest.

    Similar case took place in the U.S.A before. In February, 2011, a protest named “Jasmine Revolution” was reported by media like New York Times, BBC and Time. One of those articles defined the activity as “democratic revolution” and described China’s harsh methods toward those “democrats”. However, according to what I knew from people in Beijing, no actual theme was brought up for this protest and in fact only 3 out of 30 were detained. Since that those protesters had their activity in Wangfujin, a famous shopping center of Beijing, 3 out of 30 is not very surprising considering the potential threat to the public.

    Strong political implication could be interpreted from the two cases. I have to admit that China is trying to impair the image of America, and vice versa. I was surprised by how some Americans think of life in China when I first came to America. I have been faced with questions like “Oh, how can you guys chat with each other without Facebook?” or “Did you ever watch any online video in China?” I cannot find any other source but the US media for those statements.

    I think it’s time to make a conclusion. First, even a trivial domestic could be made use of by others, for their own political goals. It is, as a matter of fact, very efficient for a government to unite its people by transferring public discontent to another nation. Meanwhile, though my comment might be irrelevant to the original idea of the blog, it might be worth considering that how much we really know. It does not mean that we are cheated. However, all too often, we are just presented with partial truth, or, the truth interpreted into another “fact”.


  3. Brandon Canniff Says:

    Precarity, as defined in the essay, is an interesting concept and one that seems wholly relevant to not only America, but Europe as well. In Europe I think what we have are a lot of precarious movements going on right now, all of different size and impact. Just a few months ago we saw the London riots take over England and bring to light the economic issues there. Before that was the debt default crisis in Greece, and now we hear more and more about a coming euro-crisis that could effect the global market if things get worse.
    In America, like the post suggests, we see the Tea Party trying to bring down what they see as a neoliberal agenda on Washington. And we see Republicans and Democrats both pointing the finger at each other for causing the economic conditions we are in now. It’s interesting to think of how both Europe and America are facing similar economic hardships, yet America’s movements are largely political whereas Europe’s are social and less centralized.
    What will be really interesting to see is if the American Precariat will be as loud and reckless as the youth that took up the London riots.

  4. leannaprairie Says:

    I’ll be honest, I don’t know as much about the situation on Wall Street (or the Protest) as I wish I did (or think I should).

    I did, however, find what looks like one of the official sites/blogs of the protesters:

    The more I read on this blog, the more it appears that this is an issue of (in Marx’s terms) the proletariat against the bourgeoisie and proletariat. As I read this blog post, I didn’t quite see how strong these parallels were, until I read what was happening from the perspective of the people who are actually there (on These protesters are citizens who are trying to regain some power over the own lives and futures.

    This protest really does seem like something out of the “American Precariat”!

    As a senior, I am faced with a lot of decisions about my future, decisions that, 10, even 5 years ago, I wouldn’t have had to contemplate. At this point, not only do I need to go to graduate school (my career path requires a doctoral degree), but if I didn’t go to graduate school, and tried to enter the workforce, I don’t know if I would survive.

    How about you? What will be your post-college plans in this age of economic turmoil? Will you join the precariat?

  5. srbarron Says:

    Reading about these protests makes me think of the showcases in the diag here at the university. Although not full fledged protests, people protest and express themselves to the student body and Michigan community on a daily basis. Wall Street is a prime place to be noticed by the government and financial firms, and the diag gives student’s a space to be recognized by their community. Students take advantage of their freedom or speech and expression when they hold signs and pass out flyers in this large open space that most students walk through. When targeting college students, people have learned to take to the diag to have the greatest effect on the greatest number of people on campus. Similarly to the Protest on Wall Street being recognized around the globe and in national newspapers, students protesting on the diag are talked about throughout campus and written about in the Michigan Daily, the newspaper which pertains to us students.

    Recently, a pro-life display covered the diag with images comparing abortion to genocide. These gory pictures became the “talk of the town” and were noticed by all. Thus, the Student’s for Life group was successful in their protest against abortion as they captured the attention of many. On the second day of the exhibition, protesters to the protesters came out to flaunt their opposing ideals. A pro-choice group on campus decided to dress similarly and hand out flyers and information to take a stand.

    I think it is important when reading about protests across the country and about an array of subjects, to notice how much of an impact people can have on society. Unemployed workers on Wall Street and students on the University of Michigan diag, are taking a stand to protest what they believe in and get notices. This is one of the greatest freedoms in our country that allows everyone to have a say and make a difference while expressing their opinion and impacting others.

  6. ksmo1211 Says:

    I have to say that the idea of an American Precariat does not surprise me at all. While I read this post one thought I had was that I also share this feeling of an uncertain future. It was suppose to be simple. Go to college. Work hard. Get a job. Now I wonder what the hell I’m going to do, and its mostly because of the uncertainty of the job market. Recently, I’ve been hearing too many stories about smart kids graduating from great schools who end up working as bartenders. If even college grads can’t get jobs then there must be a lot of people worrying about the security of their futures.

    The economy isn’t the only pressure too. There were many American labor issues before the economic crisis began. One was the competition created by the cheap labor of illegal immigrants. Another was that American jobs were getting sent overseas. Because of this, American laborers also had to compete with cheap labor overseas. This caused factory closings, meaning Americans who thought that they had secure jobs suddenly lost them.

    I think that for me and for many Americans, it has been the suddenness of this change that really has us worried. One minute everything felt fine, and the next thing I know my future seems very uncertain. Its not just the pressure of finding a job, but also the pressure of paying for the schooling thats suppose to help one get a job too.

    I think that in the current situation, the attitude towards wall street adds to public anger. Many perceive all of Wall Street as the reason for the current economic downturn. The contrast of the supposed villains’ security against their own definitely adds fuel to the public outrage. I think that it is these class differences that have really brought out the American Precariat. Why else would the protests be directed at Wall Street?

    On a lighter note, check out this video of Wall Street’s reaction to the protests. Its pretty funny, and calls into question whether or not these protests are really having any effect.

  7. ianbaker2041 Says:

    Even though we may not have street riots like those of London and a government on the verge of fiscal collapse, America does, in a very real sense, face similar problems, and we seem to have similarly left-leaning expectations for our government in light of the recent economic downturns.

    True confessions: I’m for small government in all matters (notice that I did NOT say I’m a libertarian). I believe that the government should largely stay out of the economy and our personal lives and should simply provide basic services (protection, infrastructure, education, etc) for its citizens, and I do not favor high taxes or a European social model that emphasizes a welfare state. Given my political views as a backdrop, I think that these protests are interesting to note.

    One of the things that profoundly shocks (and somewhat frightens) me is how so many people now seem to want more from the government when I want less from it. I completely respect this, don’t get me wrong, but I just think it’s interesting to note. Rather than accept that the world isn’t how it was sixty years ago, commit to education, and prepare to compete in a global marketplace, some people seem to be trying to fall back on the government to save them. Many people who I speak to now in a political manner talk about how politicians don’t care about the people, how they’re all crooks, and how the rich are exploiting the working classes. It all feels like the same rhetoric in a different year. It’s important to remember that even in tough economic times, the government cannot simply be the answer to all of the problems, and in this sense, it’s also not fair to blame the government for all of our problems.

    The big question that I wonder is this: can the government really be expected to solve everything? I don’t think it can, and it seems to me that mass protests and riots serve only to undermine what needs to be in place in tough times: a sense of community and togetherness. To take a quote from today’s lecture, it’s the idea that “we’re all in this together” that should matter most, not “how can I get more for less?”

    And as Milton Friedman once said, “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.” I for one don’t want to be stuck in a society whose government is drowning in debt forever due to too many social obligations.

  8. madisonkraus Says:

    After reading what a Precariat is, and what conditions lead to it’s formation, It is curious why we haven’t seen its existence in the United States. Our generation of college students faces what seems to be a pretty bleak future. It seems all the mistakes of previous generations are finally revealing their consequences, which will directly affect us in the near future. While we are faced with drastic problems like national debt, weak job growth, and environmental concerns, many of our peers remain unconcerned. I think the reason we have yet to see a concrete example of precariat movements in the United States stems from the fact that Americans have a firm belief that eventually, we will be okay. Culturally, we have a steadfast belief that no matter what happens, America will end up back on top again. While this may be an arrogant view, it seems to have been adaptive for us in the past. Our confidence in our nation and its ideals helps us get through periods of difficulty. Instead of ruining us, negative events spark debate, innovation, and legislation that in the long run improve our nation.
    While the media and some members of society tend to catastrophize events, leading the public to believe that each bad quarter will be the end of America’s economy as we know it, there’s always those who remain calm. Personally, I am worried about the status of our economy, and what it means to me as a current student. I always felt that if I worked hard in college, I’d have no trouble getting a job after graduation or further studies. However, with a lack of jobs and economic problems on the rise, these days there are no guarantees. While this worries me, I have no desire to become involved in an American precariat. I plan to continue doing what I’m doing, and hoping that things will even out eventually. This isn’t to say I won’t vote or support reforms that confront our problems, but I don’t plan on getting involved in any economic protests. While my view may seem apathetic and lazy, it originates from a faith in the belief in America’s ability to bounce back and improve itself. As long as we continue to see problems as opportunities for positive change, I’ll remain calm and retain this belief and I’m sure there are others who’ll do the same.

  9. briank726 Says:

    I agree that acts such as the Tea Party movement and the wall street protest are “American precariats,” but I think they are nowhere on the same magnitude as the ones in Europe. For example, in France, protests and riots have been going on for years and the number of protesters have been in the millions. So we cannot say for sure that the precariats from these different countries will create the same effects in each country. Comparing these types of activites in the different areas, the protests such as the one on Wall Street seem less significant. It seems like they can be quelled down and forgotten fairly quickly. However, simply pushing these smaller scale precariats aside could be create more potential adverse effects for the future.
    Tocqueville said that Americans strived to serve their self-interest, and consequently promoted equality and democracy. I think that as conditions in a nation change, it is inevitable not to have at least some form of precariat arise. With the social and economic changes that came after WWII, it was the African American activists who spoke out and acted for reform. Today, it is easy to point fingers, but who is really responsible for a faltering economy? I do not think the precariats anywhere will bring any concrete solutions to the protester’s problems. However, they are still significant in that there will almost surely be lasting effects from the tumult, which may bring about gradual improvements.
    I think the question is what to do about these precariats? Are they something that should be prevented, and if so, how would they be prevented? I think it is inevitable that they will continue to occur in the future because they arise with changing conditions, and changing conditions will undoubtedly come about. And with these changes, at least some people will be displeased.

  10. erfreed3 Says:

    Scared. That is the one word that perhaps best defines how I feel about the future of my life. As an undecided sophomore, I seem to be caught up in a whirlwind of confusion, in which my passion for writing music seems to come into conflict with my WANT of a mid-high salary job. Now with the lack of a job market, I find myself wondering, “If I can’t even decide on a major how do I suppose I am going to get myself a job”?

    College is an interesting thing. I am constantly being told by friends and family, “Don’t worry, you’ll figure it out,” Yet here I am, another year, another semester, another week, the same thing. So I must say, I find the notion of an American Precariat captivating. Captivating because here I am without the slightest clue as to what I am going to do with my life. Captivating because once I figure out what to declare my major in, and follow that path, I expect a job.

    Let’s face it the economy is pretty bad. Particularly the most interesting argument of the Wall Street protest is on that of distribution. The fact that the top 0.01% of people own the majority of wealth with in the United States is a scary fact. I found this representation of distribution particularly helpful and eye opening:

    What it comes down to is Tocqueville’s representation of American democracy. Back in 1835, when Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America, he described American citizens as pursuing their self-interest above all else. He furthered that this notion of self-interest leads to selfishness, which is essentially bad for society. In this case, if the top 0.01% percent that have all the wealth in this country, why would they want to evenly distribute wealth? The bigger question is that if we are all indeed pursuing our own self-interest, and happen to be successful why should we want to redistribute wealth?

    Personally, I don’t have enough faith that the government will listen to the Wall Street protestors. Not that I think that the protestors are wrong or going about it the wrong way bur rather I believe our country is still much as Tocqueville put it, in the pursuit of self-interest. Even the protestors themselves are protesting in defense of their own self-interests.

  11. Michelle Rubin Says:

    I just recently read an interesting article about “occupy wallstreet” and how it aided similar protests in locations such as Chicago and LA. I found it somewhat inspiring that these people who started this portest in New York inspired others who want to reach the same goals to begin their own other protests in major cities. This shows how communication and displaying our thoughts can help to fuel others to fight for what they believe is true as well. Just as Mill argued in, “On Liberty” that we should always share and express our thoughts because it will lead to a greater amount of knowledge in our society, and in turn we will be better off. Additionally, the concept of a Europe Precarity is interesting as well and I would have to agree that the occupy wallstreet is somewhat like an American version of this european concept. It is an obvious form of political activism that showcases those who want to change our economy, labor, job availability, unions, corporate greed, etc. I for one identify with those protesting on wallstreet and other locations because as a current undergraduate student I am worried for what the economy will look like when I am job searching and trying to build my future career. It causes great concern and uncertainty among our societies students and young people and it is wonderful that this protest and area of concern for out country is gaining support and being displayed by way of a major protest in large American cities.

  12. aclieb Says:

    The idea of precarity, the version defined in this blog at least, is a scary but all to real situation for many Americans. Obviously, some portion of Americans has spent a great deal or an entire lifetime in a precariat lifestyle. However, recently, many middle-class Americans have found them selves in this very unfamiliar, precariat, lifestyle. The numbers of Americans in this situation have obviously jumped due to the recession that began in 2008.

    The blog mentions how Tocqueville observed Americans do well in ?overcoming difficulties on your own? but that is becoming increasingly difficult with today?s financial situation and job market. Sometimes the job force knocks you around and kick you while you?re down and nothing can be done about it. This idea is personal to me because both my parents are experiencing a degree (at least in my opinion) of precarity. My mom has worked for Pontiac Schools for over 25 years and every year has to take a salary cut and loses partial benefits such as amount of health insurance she receives for the family. My dad works for the Detroit Board of Education and is also taking yearly salary cuts and has to worry himself about whether or not they will lay him off every summer.

    My goal is not to show how crummy my parents? job situation has become. I know many people?s parents have it far worse and I?m lucky my parents currently do have jobs. I?m merely showing how precarity is becoming an issue for more and more Americans that have never experienced this sense of uncertainty in jobs before.

  13. guysnick Says:

    I had never heard of the term “precariat” before reading this post, but I definitely think it can be applied to the current economic situation of the United States. While the economy does appear to be rebounding and things do look brighter now than they did a year ago, there is still a great deal of uncertainty with regard to work and the American job market. There are still millions of Americans out of a job, and few companies are hiring. Many corporations are still downsizing to cut costs. Even college graduates from top universities are struggling to find work. “Precarity” is certainly an interesting way to describe the current situation. Being able to find or keep a job has surely become uncertain and unstable – or precarious – and such instability most often affects the middle, working class – or proletariat.

    I was also interested in the comparison made in the post between the European social model and the American way of life. Whereas the European model stresses a kind of economic solidarity that binds its classes together, the American model emphasizes the idea of self-interest – as Tocqueville explains – which often drives the upper and lower classes farther and farther apart. Perhaps this ideal of American self-interest – that one can do whatever he wants if he sets his mind to it and works hard (which isn’t a bad thing) – is the reason why the United States has found itself in a state of precarity for years. This definitely is something to think about. I personally believe free market capitalism is good for economic growth and development, and that it creates incentive for people to achieve better for themselves. But such a system also creates so-called “precarity” and a large wealth gap. Is this good or bad? I guess it depends on which side of the American economic spectrum you currently stand.

  14. philod1992 Says:

    Is there such a thing as an American Precariat, or has an American Precariat ever existed? Maybe. Throughout American history there have undoubtedly been examples of sequences of uprisings; social, racial or economical. From the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s to the Anti-nuclear protests in the 1980s, there are numerous examples of continuous citizen protests, as a reflection or manifestation of a social group’s discontent towards the government or the status quo of the time. I feel socially, and certainly racially, there are abundantly more instances which may be classified as Precariat-type movements; poignant examples being the Civil Rights Movement or the persistent protests for augmented social rights for homosexuals. Yet, seemingly poignant examples of prolonged manifestations of a social group’s dissatisfaction or dissidence to economics, similar to the type of protest which has been shown by those in the European precarity to their economic situation, in America, are less frequent. Seemingly, economically there is less of a continuous trend of protest and dissatisfaction to the status quo in American society.

    Why? Arguably, through the policies of Reagan’s globalization and neoclassical economic theory, the USA made billions of dollars nationally and per capita GDP (hence logically the quality of life) rose for the majority of Americans. Thus they were disinclined to be opposed to the current system (their more purist capitalist model, in comparison to the more Keynesian mode, which Europe operated under) and thus there was no mainstream Precariat protest; as seemingly the less prosperous in society anticipated that they could achieve a wealthy and prosperous standard of life through hard work and self-reliance. Hence, adhering to these principles, there was no need to protest about the failings of the system, rather the less prosperous would lament their own individual “failures” in the spectrum of the social demands of America, aiming for future prosperity and advancement through the adamant belief in American social mobility.

    Did the established, wealthy in American society almost use traditional American teachings of Tocqueville’s self-reliance and the fabled ‘American dream’ as a smoke screen for the failings of the neo-classical system while they continued to amass increased wealth, which the system provided (and arguably still does) for those in society who possess the disposal capital to utilize and prosper? Ever heard of the expression, ‘money makes money’?

    Until the contemporary system (specifically the last 20 years) got so fraudulent, a system where inequalities of wealth became ridiculous (Top 1% own 38.1% and 40% of population has 0.2% of all wealth) and where Madoff-type Ponzi schemes were almost accepted in the financial sector, and fell victim to the now infamous economic crash of 2008, there was seemingly few mainstream agitations towards the economic culture and distribution of wealth endemic to American society. Yet, now the crash has occurred and economic depression lingers, seemingly two precariat style movement have developed in American society;

    (1) Headed by Obama’s (now arguably failed) Denzel Washington, “John Q” inspired assault on the American health care system, there is a movement which supports liberals’ calls for a more Keynesian economic model in America, with more precedence given to improving social welfare and the diminishing of wealth inequalities. Arguably, a movement which wants to finally tackle the social and economic problems in America through strong government intervention (for example those who advocate an increasingly strict progressive tax system). The “Occupy Wall Street’ movement would be included in this movement.
    (2) STRANGLY ENOUGH, almost as a reaction to the perceived formation of ‘socialism’ in America by Obama, there has been the formation of radical-Conservative movement, headed (at least symbolically) by the TEA Party and other Rightist faction groups, calling for the preservation and strengthening of the neo-classical economic system, small government and the advancement of libertarianism in contemporary American society (clue the Ron Paul commercials).
    The adamancy of the extreme Rightist factions, specifically the TEA Party, to protect the current economic model (if not increase its distance from Keynesianism) is seemingly illogical, as inequalities of wealth, inflation (with no real wage rises) and unemployment continue to increase. Henceforth, the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement can be seen as a worthy representation of the liberal precariat movement; an adversary to the TEA Party, if you will.

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