Has the time come for the Occupiers to stop occupying?
Published: Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, September 19, 2012 21:09
With the only major accomplishment of Monday’s Occupy Wall Street anniversary celebration in downtown Manhattan being the arrest of 185 would-be occupiers, you might be forgiven for wondering why we on the left ever thought the way to bring about financial reform in a country that desperately needs it was a long-term camping-based protest.
However, it is worth a moment’s consideration to see just where this “movement” came unglued.
It all seemed so promising at first. After three years in the financial crisis, there was finally a movement that came along that seemed to capture a feeling that people of all political stripes could agree with. Righteous anger against the bankers and financial kingpins who engineered the housing bubble, moral certitude that the wealth disparity between the top earners and the bottom 99 percent was ruining the country, the populist rallying cry. “We Are The 99 percent!” For liberals, like myself, this was a breath of fresh air, the opportunity we had so desperately been looking for. We were swept up and taken in; in short, we were in love.
Flash forward to today. What is the top story on OWS’s front page? A call for, and you cannot make this kind of thing up, people to gather and bang kitchen equipment together. Pots and pans. To raise awareness. Like a toddler might bang a pot with a spoon, to raise awareness of just how annoying it can truly be.
This is not the relationship I was looking for.
Still, the signs have been there the whole time, haven’t they? From the disorganized, chaotic early weeks to the inability and general unwillingness to put together real policy goals, Occupy Wall Street has never put together a realistic platform, never attempted to organize voters, never attempted to sponsor political candidates nor work in any meaningful way for any policy goal. They have organized a guitarmy. That is, a guitar-army.
Suddenly, things aren’t so mysterious.
But this is doubly galling when one compares the dashed hopes of a progressive revolution with what we actually got: the Tea Party. Despite the usual critiques from the left – that the Tea Party is full of ignorant yokels, mostly white, mostly male, mostly angry about things they don’t understand and way more into their ridiculous hats and signs than actually thinking about the problems that face the nation, the Tea Party has been successful. Like Occupy, they are a broad, decentralized movement, consisting of vague policy goals and general dislikes – in their case, government, taxes, immigrants, and the president – but have somehow managed to overcome those obstacles in ways OWS never could.
Just look at the stats: though not an official party, there are dozens of Tea Party affiliated elected representatives in Congress. One of them, Paul Ryan, was just chosen as their Vice Presidential candidate. The Republican primaries were dominated by Tea Party darlings like Michelle “The Muslims are Coming” Bachman and Ron Paul. With Ryan’s nomination, as the New York Times has declared, the Tea Party is now “indisputably at the core of the modern Republican Party.”
And they’ve tended to get what they wanted, too. In states where Republican governors were elected under the Tea Party ticket, the social programs and progressive laws that so often draw their ire have been major issues. In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Brown even managed to strip public sector union workers of their bargaining rights, effectively neutering them in any labor negotiation. And what’s more, he even became the first governor to survive a recall vote over the same issue.
It is not difficult to become disheartened, as a progressive, when reading such things and comparing them to the noisemakers in Occupy Wall Street. As the weeks dragged on at the Zuccotti park encampment, stories leaked out about everything from arguments over tent-space to meeting structure, to the absurdity of the “human microphone,” and just about everything else except what we had been waiting for - an honest, progressive agenda.
While Occupy Wall Street wasn’t a complete disaster – the populist spirit did bring progressive champions like Elizabeth Warren into the national spotlight – it certainly should have made us aware of the limitations and weaknesses of such movements. At a certain point, raising awareness must give way to actual work. In practical terms, that is lobbying, registering voters, electing candidates, and all of the other less fun but otherwise necessary work that goes along with big goals.
Hopefully next time, instead of pots and pans, we might try using ballot boxes.