Saturday, October 22, 2011

Some Notes on Occupy Wall Street
We now seem to be at a point with the Occupy Wall Street protest where it's more likely than not it won't just disappear, as those it has targeted no doubt were hoping, but nor is it certain where it's going or what its effects might be.

I think it's fairly clear that OWS at its core is a manifestation of economic populism, both contrasting with and complementary to the reactionary cultural populism of the Tea Party. A somewhat dumb and broadly dismissive compare and contrast article in today's Times almost but doesn't quite hit the core point: both ventures arise from a sense that the game is rigged against "ordinary people." The difference is that in the Tea Party's story, the government is the direct oppressor and "real Americans"--whites, Christians--are victims, while OWS places the blame on the economic elites who have bought the government and progressively concentrated wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands.

The way protest movements generally have worked in American democracy is that raw popular energy gradually translates into a policy program championed by political actors. This was true of the Populists (who were absorbed into the Democratic Party in the 1890s through the 1910s, and to whom both OWS and the TP can hearken back); the labor movement (a core element of Democratic coalitions for a century now); the civil rights movement (which initially wasn't partisan, but ultimately did more than probably any other single factor to prompt the ideological sorting that left all liberals in the Democratic Party and all conservatives in the Republican Party); and religious right (which is now a major component of the Republican coalition). It happened with the Tea Party as well--as you'd expect since the TP is essentially the back-engine of the Christian right, with its cultural resentments, attached to the lead car of the anti-tax movement. Most of the recognized champions of the Tea Party, senators elected in 2010 like Pat Toomey and Marco Rubio, are veteran politicians who cannily realized that this was a vehicle they could ride. I don't doubt the sincerity of their support for the movement--but the point is that the Tea Party agenda fit so closely with their pre-existing views as to represent continuity with, rather than a break from, what at least a big chunk of Republicans have sought for many years.

I'm not sure that will happen for Occupy Wall Street--though if it does, I think the impact will be far more fundamental in the direction of reform than has been the case with the Tea Party. In terms of style and culture, OWS is obviously much closer with the popular perception of the Democratic Party than the Republicans. What the protesters presumably want, though--a return to sensible regulation of the finance industry and a reduction of the role of money in politics and government--is as inimical to the Democrats of the last 25 years or so as it is to the Republicans. A core premise of the "New Democrat" movement and Democratic Leadership Council was that with labor's power declining, the party would have to become more business-friendly; otherwise it couldn't remain economically (and thus politically) competitive with the Republicans. The results have included the support of the Clinton administration for massive deregulation of the finance industry, low-lighted by the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. Famously, Wall Street strongly supported Barack Obama in 2008, and despite the perception that the finance industry now "hates" Obama, it's still not clear that the bulk of finance-sector sentiment and giving will oppose the president next year (though Mitt Romney surely is trying hard for that).

In other words, it's going to be tough for the Democrats to simply embrace (or, if you prefer, co-opt) OWS--because doing so would constitute a direct frontal assault on an enormous resource pool for the party. At the same time, though, keeping some distance from the Dems might bolster the viability of Occupy Wall Street as a real movement of reform. Popular opinion of the Tea Party began to decline as it became clear just how indistinguishable its priorities and goals were from those of the still-discredited an unpopular Republican Party. Views of OWS aren't entirely clear, but it seems like among those who know enough to have an opinion, majority sentiment is broadly positive.

Matt Taibbi points out that OWS is "bigger than left vs. right." This is both its peril and its opportunity--the former because our opinion class doesn't know how to tell political stories other than in that frame, and when it comes to views of how to treat the finance sector, there's little meaningful difference between the two parties; but the latter because, left or right, just about everyone in America realizes that there's something deeply wrong in our economy and politics, and wants to see real change.

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