There’s only one way the Occupy Wall Street movement can become like the tea parties, and that’s for Barack Obama to lose in 2012. Why? Because Obama is the most divisive figure in American politics today.
I suspect that sentence reads funny to some people because in the mainstream press, “divisive” is usually a term reserved for “conservatives we disagree with.” But as a factual matter it can apply to anybody who is, well, divisive.
Obviously, Obama divides the right and left. That’s not all that interesting or relevant (even if it does represent a failure to live up to his “one America” rhetoric from 2008). But Obama also divides everyone else. Independents, whom he desperately needs to win re-election, are split over Obama, with the bulk siding with Republicans.
Even more significant, the left is deeply divided over Obama. According to reports, the Occupy Wall Street movement is torn over whether to support the incumbent president. Polling of the protestors is sketchy at best, but so far it’s pretty clear that most of the protestors liked Obama in 2008, and now roughly half of them are disillusioned by, disappointed in, or opposed to Obama.
That should only make sense, right? If Occupy Wall Street is a sincere, organic, grassroots movement for radical change and overturning the status quo, it can’t be 100 percent behind the guy who’s been running the country for the last three years.
Moreover, Democrats had near total control of the government for Obama’s first two years. Together, Obama and congressional Democrats already got their Wall Street and student-loan reforms, their health-care overhaul, and a huge stimulus. And yet Occupy Wall Street is still furious with the political status quo. Does anyone believe Obama can both run on his record and co-opt the Occupy Wall Streeters?
A “political hip-hop artist” who goes by the name “Immortal Technique” summarizes the view of many OWSers. “We’re willing to put [Obama’s] second term on the altar of democracy and sacrifice it if we need to,” I.T. told Rawstory.com, “to send a message to the rest of the world saying, ‘If you promise us change, and then you deliver nothing but the same, if you do these little superficial changes to pacify the people, to placate people, then you expose yourself.’”
Of course, Occupy Wall Street is just one facet of Obama’s larger problem. Why is he running as a left-leaning populist these days? Because he has to unify and energize his mopey and dispirited base, and hope that he can woo back independents later.
This is where comparisons to the tea parties are instructive. As I’ve long argued, a major motivating passion of the tea-party movement was a long-delayed backlash against George W. Bush and his big-government conservatism. The Bush-Obama bailouts and Obamacare were the perfect excuse for a disaffected conservative base (as well as some independents and libertarians) to vent frustration about ballooning deficits, expanded entitlements, and other elements of Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.”
An iron law of politics is that parties out of power are more unified than parties in power. That’s because when you control the government, members of the ruling coalition squabble over who gets what. When you don’t control government, everyone can at least agree that the top priority is to win back control.
A corollary to that law is that it’s ideologically empowering to be out of power. When you don’t have responsibility for anything, you can afford the luxury of purity.
The tea parties had an easy time of it in 2009 because there was no one in power to defend and no compromises required. If the financial crisis had hit in 2006, the emergence of anything like the tea party would have torn the GOP apart. But in 2009, with Bush gone, Democrats running the show, and Obama championing a program that made George W. Bush look like Calvin Coolidge (praise be upon him), there was nothing holding back the tea parties.
For Occupy Wall Street to enjoy similar freedom, it can’t be hobbled by having to defend the most powerful and important politician in America. You can’t declare war with the status quo and support the chief author of the status quo at the same time. Similarly, you can’t run for re-election and be joined at the hip with fringe revolutionaries.
If it were possible to buy stock in Occupy Wall Street, shareholders would be doing everything they could for a Republican victory in 2012. Only then will you see Democratic leaders and Immortal Technique fans alike, locked arm in arm, in united opposition to the Powers that Be.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2011, Tribune Media Services, Inc.