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Past Their Sell-By Date

A dwindling group of Occupiers take on the New Hampshire primary.

Jan 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 18 • By MATT LABASH
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Needless to say, Occupy has become America’s Sweetheart. Or not exactly—but they have become part of the architecture, as their steady patter about class warfare, the evils of capitalism, and upending a good many of our corrupt financial and political institutions seems to be catching on in uneasy, recession-addled America. A December Pew poll showed that while Americans disapproved of the protesters’ tactics by 49 percent to 29 percent, 48 percent agreed with Occupiers’ concerns (however those are defined), while only 30 percent disagreed. A just-released Pew poll shows that a full two-thirds of the public now believe that there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between rich and poor—an increase of 19 percentage points since 2009. 

To the Occupiers’ delight, even fat-cat Republicans seem willing to push the hot-button these days, even if it’s just for cynical political gain. Rick Perry, who has raised enough money to float Texas if it decides to secede, as he once advocated it doing, is now calling Mitt Romney a “vulture capitalist.” Newt Gingrich, just two months ago, dismissively told Occupiers that they needed to “get a job” and “take a bath.” But while on his chat-show lecture rounds on the evils of Romney’s rapacious tenure as a corporate turnaround artist, Gingrich is starting to sound like a kaffiyeh-wearing Occupier himself, even as he depends on a pro-Newt super-PAC spending millions to sing the point home. It beats the hell out of Vermin’s megaphone. 

Still, as I enter the park, I can’t help but feel a loss of Occupier momentum on the ground. It’s not like those heady days back at Zuccotti when I marched with the anarchists and yelled at the pigs, when I sat in on conga at the crowded drum circles, when I stood in line for a half an hour waiting to take a squirt at the People’s McDonald’s across the street. 

Here, a good four-fifths of the Occupiers’ park is utterly unoccupied. The General Assemblies are poorly attended, and when one Occupier is asked to help break down tents, he claims he’s suffering a hip pointer. When asked to draft volunteers instead, he refuses, saying that’s “excessively hierarchical.” The “Puppets and Power” theater is lame. The “Dance Party of Awesomeness / Emma Goldman Tribute” plays dated rap music from the early ’90s. Nobody seems to know what time the flash mob starts. 

Last October in Manhattan, I kept company with menacing intimidators like Sid the Nazi, who was covered in Third Reich and naked pagan goddess tattoos. Here in Manchester, there are the requisite Sherpa hats and scraggly facial hair (even on a few of the women). But the protesters are so unthreatening that I’m actually approached at the park by a gaggle of curiosity-seeking Romney supporters, one of them still wearing a Sundance Festival lammie on his ski jacket, who said they happened by because they “like the music—good rhythm section.” Sundance Man tries to give me a knuckle-bump of solidarity. I make a quick escape, looking for a self-respecting anarchist. I approach the one guy I see with a mask around his neck, asking if he is one. “No, but I have an affinity for some of their principles,” he says. When I ask why I can’t seem to find any anarchists when the place was crawling with them in New York, he says, “We’re a pretty small town, comparatively speaking.” His nose-ringed buddy shakes his head in assent. “Location, location,” he laments. 

Most of the action takes place away from the park. To this end, I wet my beak by attending the Occupiers’ “Bird-Dogging Political Candidates” seminar at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Manchester. Like most Unitarian spaces, it is a welcoming one—lots of soft colors, multi-cultural depictions of Jesus, and cutesy signs such as “Unattended children will be given lots of espresso and a puppy.” 

We form a circle in the sanctuary. Our facilitator, who wears a sweater with a very complicated pattern, has us role play. He tells us to try to shake the candidate’s hand, then to hold on for dear life so that he can’t get away. Meanwhile, we are to ask short, nonabusive questions that are sharpened like spears, designed to achieve maximum media penetration. I listen to my classmates’ practice questions. Many seem to favor the white-paper route, with lots of statistics and footnotes. Just stick and move, people, I want to tell them. So I zone out, instead reading the fascinating church literature. It asks if I’m looking for a religious home. I’m good. But I’m intrigued by their claims that Unitarians afford a church that “encourages open dialogue on questions of faith, one in which it is okay to change your mind.” I figure I should hand this pamphlet off to my new knuckle-bumping Romney friends at the park. If Mitt is ever excommunicated from LDS, he’ll fit in here just fine. 

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