Strange as it might seem, given its nebulous and limited form, the Occupy Wall Street brigade betrays a discernible over-confidence. Their movement has not physically grown beyond a rump, but its adherents consider their cause to be universal nonetheless. Why? From the time I’ve spent down in New York’s “occupied” financial district, such overestimation seems to come from an all-too-familiar misunderstanding of how Americans actually tend to think, replete with a wildly misguided belief in the ubiquity of Marxist false-consciousness. Time and time again, I hear the same old hope: If we would only listen, then the “bright beads and trinkets of capitalism” that prevent us from picking up shovels and revolting against the status quo would cease to serve as a hindrance to the (much-delayed) construction of a heaven on earth. (There is no acknowledgement that this flies directly in the face of the assertion that they speak for 99 percent of the country….) If you were to take the average Zuccotti Park squatter at face value, you would be forgiven for concluding that he was a an emissary of the people, in the mold of a John Adams or a Benjamin Franklin. The truth is less glamorous and much less significant. The people who are coming out to protest are the people who always come out to protest. And they don’t understand America much at all.
If 99 percent of the population is so strongly on board with their message, then they sure are keeping quiet about it. A range of popular excuses for why this is the case are forthcoming — the overwhelming favorite being that people are staying away through fear of losing their jobs. But this prompts the obvious counter-question: What of the 14 million unemployed? They should form a natural constituency, so where are they? At this inquiry, various social theories are proffered, most of them unintelligible. I have a modest offering in lieu: Like the lover who frustratingly finds his affection unrequited, there is rarely a simpler explanation than a good old fashioned, “I don’t love you.” Americans aren’t really interested.
This is unsurprising. During the 1968 Democratic primary, anti-war students and counterculture types who wanted to be taken seriously when campaigning for Eugene McCarthy shaved off their beards and put on suits. They changed their language, contrived to smile, and learned some hard facts to go along with their indignation. The architects of the “Get clean for Gene” approach understood something important — the hippie vibe scares most of the country and deafens them to its advocates’ message. Whatever currency the OWS brigade might potentially have with the population at large, their tactics and demeanor will always work against them while they are banging drums, carrying signs, and allowing 9/11 truthers and kooks to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them. Even if the protesters had a stellar and coherent message, the unavoidable oddness of the camps would render them weak.
The message, however, is neither stellar, nor coherent. Put bluntly, it just isn’t a winner. And, like George McGovern, those “occupying” Wall Street are way out of line with the American mainstream. While a significant number of Americans undoubtedly share a frustration with the economy and the state of the union, it is wishful thinking in the extreme to conclude that they have much time for the average remedy proposed by the OWS crowd. (If, that is, such a remedy is forthcoming.) Instead, the movement is preaching to the choir — itself — and projecting its ardor onto a country which tends toward different infatuations. De Clérambault’s Syndrome is alive and well in Lower Manhattan.
On top of these delusions sits a healthy dose of denial about the standard trajectory of American leftism. One gets the impression from the protesters that not only is Calvin Coolidge president, but that both houses of Congress are run by a cartoon version of the Republican Party which blocks any attempt at reform. Very few people I have met have acknowledged that, for the two years following Obama’s election, the Democrats effectively had carte blanche, with a fillibuster-proof Senate to boot. Understandably, some of those involved find this little comfort. None of the Marxists I met are fans of Obama, and they see the two parties as essentially the same creature. But average Americans — the 99 percent, if you will — know that the Democratic Party had its shot at moving the United States towards the sort of nation that our friends down in Zuccotti Park would like to see and, far from endorsement and acceleration, the result was a resounding rebuke.