In the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Left thinks it might have found its own tea party.
MoveOn.org and some unions have embraced the protesters. The left-wing Campaign for America’s Future is featuring them at its conference devoted to reinvigorating progressivism. Liberal opinion-makers have celebrated them — Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne welcomes their spirit, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof compares them, astonishingly enough, to the demonstrators at Egypt’s Tahrir Square.
This is a sign either of desperation to find anyone on the left still energized after three years of Hope and Change, or of a lack of standards, or both. The Left’s tea party is a juvenile rabble, a woolly-headed horde that has been laboring to come up with one concrete demand on the basis of its — in the words of one sympathetic writer — “horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, modified-consensus-based system with roots in anarchist thought.”
The Right’s tea party had its signature event at a rally at the Lincoln Memorial where everyone listened politely to patriotic exhortations and picked up their trash and went home. The Left’s tea party closed down a major thoroughfare in New York City — the Brooklyn Bridge — and saw its members arrested in the hundreds.
On the cusp of the confrontation, the protesters chanted “This is what democracy looks like,” betraying an elemental confusion between lawbreaking for the hell of it and free discussion. They flatter themselves that, in contrast to the wealthiest 1 percent, they represent “the 99 percent.” It might be true if the entire country consisted of stereotypically aging hippies and young kids who could have just left a Phish concert.
What was remarkable about the Right’s tea party is that it depended on solid burghers who typically don’t have the time or inclination to protest anything. Occupy Wall Street is a project of people who do little besides protest. It’s all down to a standard operating procedure: the guitars, the drums, the street theater, the age-old chants. If the perpetual rallying cry of demonstrators is to be believed, “the whole world” does little else than “watch” activists stage protests.
The New York Times quoted one Occupy Wall Street veteran telling a newcomer: “It doesn’t matter what you’re protesting. Just protest.” That captures the coherence of the exercise, which is a giant, ideologically charged, post-adolescent sleepover complete with face paint and pizza deliveries.
“The Declaration of the Occupation of New York City,” the first official release of Occupy Wall Street, is Marxism for people whose familiarity with Marx probably begins and ends with seeing his bearded visage on some T-shirt. It thunders that “corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth.”
The myriad charges against corporate America include poisoning the food supply, torturing animals, and using the military to suppress freedom of the press. Of course, corporations stand accused — in a hardy perennial — of perpetuating colonialism. The long list of complaints is thoughtfully affixed with an asterisk and an accompanying note, “These grievances are not all-inclusive.”
The Tea Party had such an impact because it had a better claim on the middle of America than its adversaries. It wrapped itself in our history and patriotic trappings. It plugged in to the political system and changed the course of the country in the 2010 elections. The Left went from denying it, to ridiculing it, to envying it.
Occupy Wall Street is not a real answer. It is both more self-involved and more ambitious than the Tea Party. It represents an ill-defined, free-floating radicalism. Its fuzzy endpoint is a “revolution” no one can precisely describe, but the thrust of which is overturning our system of capitalism as we know it. If elected Democrats dare associate their sagging party with this project, they need immediately to consult their nearest psychiatrist and political consultant, in that order.
Occupy Wall Street is toxic and pathetic, the perfect distillation of an American Left in extremis.