‘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.