‘I want to stipulate up front that I am firmly on [Occupy Wall Street’s] side,” Michael Tomasky declared in a recent column for the Daily Beast. “I don’t really know who its leaders are, and I don’t especially care. I don’t know its exact goals — a subject on which the movement has been roundly, and in my view pointlessly, criticized.”
Put bluntly, this is the intellectual and political equivalent of a woman’s saying before a blind date even gets started, “Let me just tell you up front, wherever we go to dinner and no matter how you treat me, I’ll sleep with you.”
Tomasky’s hardly the only cheap date out there. E. J. Dionne, Harold Meyerson, Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, Paul Krugman — the list goes on and on — have embraced the movement in principle with the understanding that they’ll worry about the details later, if at all. I don’t choose the artwork for this magazine, but if I did, I’d have Roman Genn whip up a picture of E. J. Dionne weeping tears of joy as he tells a face-pierced meth-head wearing a Che T-shirt and Mao cap (complete with little contrails of urine stench wafting off him), “You had me at hello [sob]. You. Had. Me. At. Hello.”
Many of these mainstream liberals are open about what they claim to be their motivations: Liberals need a tea party, damn it. And even though the core of the Occupy Wall Street movement is by all appearances a motley coalition of bored campus leftists on the ten-year plan, performance artists, thawed-out SANE Freezers, would-be baristas who couldn’t pass the drug test, freelance revolutionaries, and public-library loiterers, these same establishment liberals are nonetheless convinced that this is merely the bitter yeast that will give rise to the sweet dough of a mainstream mass movement.
The comparison between the tea partiers and the protesters of Occupy Wall Street (often shortened on Twitter and blogs to “OWS” — which, if these urchins keep defecating on police cars, could soon gain some onomatopoetic heft from some well-aimed billy clubs) is strained on almost every level. But the main difference is fairly obvious. As the name would suggest, the tea parties are at their core a taxpayer revolt. “This is America! How many of you people want to pay for your neighbors’ mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” railed Rick Santelli in his famous “rant heard round the world” that marked, symbolically at least, the launch of the tea-party movement.
Looking at the OWSers in the most flattering light possible — i.e., ignoring the anarchist poseurs, the twentysomething hobos, and other denizens of what Teddy Roosevelt aptly dubbed “the lunatic fringe” — you’re still left with the people Santelli was complaining about (although huge student-loan debt seems to be the more relevant grievance than bad or unwise mortgages). In other words, the tea parties are motivated by anger at being forced to pay for bailouts, while the most compelling poster children of the “99 percent” are angry that they’re not getting bailouts.
That doesn’t mean they don’t have good reason to be angry. Sustained high unemployment, the housing crisis, and the other dismaying structural problems of the economy have produced large numbers of undeserving “losers.” Visit the “We Are the 99 Percent” website. Yes, you’ll find lots of sad sacks, malcontents, whiners, and deviants (some of whom are oddly both proud and resentful about being “forced” to become prostitutes). But you’ll find far more people who are clearly suffering real hardships imposed upon them by an economy that is simply horrid.
But just because their anger and frustration is understandable and, in some cases, justified, doesn’t mean their preferred policies have merit. And that’s assuming they have preferred policies. As many people have commented, the movement is almost completely bereft of serious proposals. There’s no official list of demands, no concrete agenda. After spending several days among the protesters, the left-wing blogger Matt Stoller concluded that the crowd down at Liberty Plaza was constructing a “church of dissent” whose only common bond was a burning desire to find meaning. Charles C. W. Cooke posted an interview onNational Review Online with a meek, hippie-ish lad holding up a sign that simply said “I Hate Stuff Too!” He explained that hatred of “stuff” was the only thing uniting the protesters. It seems they’re both right: It’s simply one big party where the price of admission is an overwhelming sense of grievance or victimhood.
I’ve attended several tea-party rallies, and you could be sure that if any speaker proposed anything nakedly unconstitutional, the crowd would boo. Every tea-party meeting begins with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer. As far as I can tell, every Occupy Wall Street meeting begins with a pagan drum circle and advice about which local restaurant protesters can steal toilet paper from.
The tea parties are a remarkable and fairly novel historical development in part because they represent, in Rich Lowry’s words, “solid burghers who typically don’t have the time or inclination to protest anything.” Occupy Wall Street represents a class of people who enjoy protesting everything. “It’s about taking down systems,” one protester explained to the New York Times. “It doesn’t matter what you’re protesting. Just protest.” Or as a popular sign reads: “We Demand Sweeping, Unspecified Change!” This open-ended standard means that all points of view are welcome, including absolutely reprehensible ones. Put simply, Occupy Wall Street is operating under the rules of the hard campus Left: Every idea deserves space on the community bulletin board, and every cause has a right to hold meetings in the student union. Every cause, that is, that starts from left-wing or anti-American assumptions.
We’ve spent two years hearing that the tea parties are “extreme” because they want the government to borrow less money, send some federal responsibilities to the states, and cut subsidies for cowboy poets. This is quaint stuff compared with the OWSers who admit they want to “overthrow the government” — in the words of the communications director of NYC General Assembly, the ad hoc group that “governs” the Liberty Park crew.
But what is amazing is how liberals just don’t care. This you-had-me-at-hello weakness for radicals to their left has been the Achilles heel of the Democratic party for more than a half century now. It began as a tactical policy of pas d’ennemi à gauche. From the late 1930s to the mid-1950s, vast swaths of American liberalism couldn’t bring themselves to see their Communist friends as anything other than allies. The Progressive party, which nominated FDR’s former vice president Henry Wallace for the presidency in 1948, was quite simply a Communist enterprise, infested with Soviet spies and stooges. The best you can say about Wallace, not a Communist himself, is that he was an extremely useful idiot for Moscow. The McCarthy era is usually cast as a morality tale of right-wing excesses and paranoia, but what is often overlooked is that it got so ugly because mainstream liberals just couldn’t bring themselves to condemn Communists in their ranks. Instead they elevated their “anti-anti-Communism” into some kind of high principle.
The more relevant period for today is, of course, the 1960s. One need not rehearse the whole sorry chapter, but suffice it to say that the Democratic party’s weakness for left-wing radicalism pulled it apart like a tin of free hash brownies dropped in the middle of Liberty Park. Democratic elders responded to urban riots by apologizing to the rioters and giving them whatever they wanted. After the Watts riots, Lyndon Johnson said that such behavior was to be expected when “people feel they don’t get a fair shake.” Hubert Humphrey said that if he’d been born poor, he might have rioted too. At Columbia, Mark Rudd and his Jacobin goons screamed “Up against the wall, mother****er!” and the faculty admired their commitment. At Cornell, where armed students seized the school and threatened bloodshed, administrators acted like they had it coming. Everywhere and anywhere young radicals threatened to burn it all down, you could be sure there was a liberal making apologies or gushing with a mixture of envy and pride, like a stage mom watching her kid from the wings. Everywhere and anywhere the radicals paddled button-down liberals for being squares, or sell-outs to the Man, or male chauvinist pigs, or warmongers, the liberals would shout, “Thank you, sir, may I have another?”
What, exactly, does a self-described leftist revolutionary have to do to be roundly condemned by liberals? Assassinate a president? Oh, wait, Lee Harvey Oswald did that — and liberals condemned conservatives for it.
Meanwhile, if you come up short of murder, there’s really nothing you cannot advocate. Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Michael Moore, Frances Fox Piven, Jeremiah Wright, Spike Lee, Van Jones: The hard-core celebrity Left can support anything, say anything, and mainstream liberalism just doesn’t care. Point out that the Liberty Park Commune is chockablock with Communists, anarchists, and truthers, not to mention the perfect cast for an Escape From New York remake, and mainstream Democrats will immediately change the subject. Suddenly, the only issue is the protesters’ “right to protest.”
So far, most of the criticism from the right has focused on the cognitive dissonance and plain old hypocrisy of Democrats who embrace the patchouli-soaked hordes as a wonderful flowering of democracy, an American Arab Spring, even though they saw the tea-party movement as recrudescent fascism. Democratic House minority leader Nancy Pelosi — a multimillionaire from an old machine-politics family who shared political control of Washington for two years — says of Occupy Wall Street, “I support the message to the establishment, whether it’s Wall Street or the political establishment and the rest, that change has to happen.” This is the same woman who, as speaker of the House, wrote (with Steny Hoyer) in USA Today that American citizens protesting Obamacare at town-hall meetings were “un-American.” Mainstream Democrats look at the radicals with a parent’s love, seeing idealism and hope and passion and (fingers crossed!) mobilizing power that will yield electoral victory. They put on their rose-colored glasses and see a Norman Rockwell painting made flesh at Liberty Park. Middle-class Americans look at the same scene and see a convention of glue sniffers and shoplifters.
The same thing happened in the 1960s. At the 1968 Democratic covention, the police went hard on the protesters after days of provocation and insults. Mainstream liberals took the rioters’ side. The protesters were “idealistic, demonstrably brave, concerned for their country and their fellow men,” Tom Wicker famously wrote in the New York Times. “The truth is that these were our children in the streets, and the Chicago police beat them up.” Liberals and radicals alike were profoundly moved by the chants of “The whole world is watching!” And they were right, at least figuratively: The American people were watching, and polls showed that the American people sided with Mayor Daley, the cops, and, by extension, National Review and Richard Nixon, by a two-to-one margin. Those weren’t their children.
But all that is ancient history to today’s Democrats. Their desperation, their tea-party envy, their psychological need to indulge their inner revolutionaries, their 1960s nostalgia: All these things contribute to the gob-smackingly idiotic impulse to embrace the tumescent lumpenproletariat without heed to their agenda or their leadership.
This can end in several different ways. The least likely is the one the Democrats are betting on: a popular protest movement that can be successfully channeled into meaningful electoral victories and liberal reforms. Not only are Democrats backing the wrong horse for that, the horse they’re backing isn’t even in the race; it’s running in an open field toward some utopian land of loan forgiveness and free government cheese. The most likely end is that, like the flies swarming the protesters, the protests themselves will die off with the first frost. Of all the reasons that comparisons to the Arab Spring are nonsensical, the most obvious is that these bozos started in the fall. It’s going to get cold just in time for midterms. That will leave only the least photogenic and most radical kids behind.
But the medium-plausible scenario is that Occupy Wall Street will turn ugly — sorry, uglier. Frustration over the inability to convert their unspecified demands for sweeping change into action will breed bitterness. Attention addiction will elicit ever-more-idiotic antics and stunts. Yet mainstream liberals will continue to support the occupation of Wall Street and its companion movements just long enough to reconfirm everything they’ve worked decades to disprove. And when things go bad, the cheap dates will take great offense at anyone who dares to notice that they’re tramps.