In barely a month, mainstream liberal reaction to the Wall Street protests shifted from patronizing to envious. Progressive groups want to impose their own reform agendas onto the widening energy gen-erated by these novice activists. The right-wing response, meanwhile, has evolved from scornful to evasive. Over a week, Mitt Romney, ever the chameleon, flipped from “We don’t want class warfare” to “I understand how those people feel.” Even Ben Bernanke professed sympathy for the concerns. Wait till the marchers reach the Fed.
Progressive commentators have likened Occupy Wall Street (OWS) to earlier fringe protests that kindled mainstream reform movements. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne analogized the demonstrators to radical abolitionists and the cautious Obama to the prudent Lincoln (we should be so lucky).
Yet Occupy Wall Street is different in two key respects. First, it’s the rare spontaneous mass protest—as the tea parties were before Dick Armey and the Koch brothers fused them with the Republican Party. That says something about the ideologically inchoate character of popular economic frustration in our era and the failure of established Democrats to narrate it. For two years, progressive organizations tried to mount marches against Wall Street, and they didn’t catch fire. This one did. The unions have begun helping out, President Obama has expressed guarded support, but don’t expect a Democratic billionaire to fund OWS or it to take his money.
Second, this is the rare protest movement whose goal can’t be reduced to a few words: End Slavery. Give Women the Vote. Pass the Civil Rights Act. Stop the War. “We are the 99 percent” is a cri de coeur, not a demand, much less a program. Those who would impose their own ten-point plan on this nascent movement will be disappointed.
Yet OWS has already created a new political reality. The protests have given ordinary people and risk-averse Democratic politicians permission to acknowledge that Americans are in fact mad as hell, not in general or even at government, but at Wall Street. Most people, with a little reminding, do grasp that the financial industry caused the collapse and that even now as the 99 percent are suffering, the 1 percent are still thriving. Polls show that the protests enjoy majority support. Try to stop that freight train once it gets going.
“We are the 99 percent” has the virtue of being true as well as mobilizing, and happily, this rallying cry didn’t grow out of a focus-group exercise in strategic framing. For once, the hysteria of the 24-hour news cycle has worked to energize citizenship. Because of the media spotlight on the next new thing (and the useful idiocy of a New York City police supervisor) not only did coverage of the protests go viral; the protests themselves did.
OWS has put the Republican right, Fox, and friends in an exquisite bind. The more they ridicule the protests, the clearer it is which side they’re on. The hedge-fund billionaire John Paulson foolishly lectured the demonstrators on the importance of Wall Street to the economy. They didn’t debate him; they marched on his East Side manse. How useful to put a face on the parasitic 1 percent.
The protests have particularly flummoxed the right-wing media machine. Everybody knows OWS has no officers or gatekeepers. So it’s hardly news to point out that the protesters include some scruffy radicals. The more right-wing commentators try this gambit, the sillier they look. Poor James O’Keefe. He could infiltrate Zuccotti Park with pot-dealing, naked Maoists and film them in flagrante, and nobody would care. Anarchism turns out to have useful natural antibodies.
The flip side also works nicely. Just as the organized liberal left can’t co-opt OWS, the OWS occupiers with their homey forms of direct democracy can’t control where this new energy leads. Although the demonstrators will not be the source of a coherent reform manifesto or politics, they have opened the way to more concrete goals and tactics. After years of eerie quiescence, mass demonstrations are thinkable again, and more strategically focused protest could follow. One can imagine a million unemployed recent graduates converging on Washington demanding respite from their student loans until the unemployment rate drops; or a million underwater homeowners demanding the relief that has been routinely given to bankers; or a million actual persons calling for an end to corporate personhood.
“There go my people. I must find out where they are going so I can lead them,” said the French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin. This could be one of those infrequent occasions where citizens lead and politicians follow. It usefully smokes out where the Republican right lives. Now let’s see where the Obama administration lives.