"God, I love ’em,” wrote Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post not long after the glorious dawning of Occupy Wall Street, saying that the protests “arise at just the right moment and are aimed at just the right target” to grow into something quite big. Apparently, the stench from McPherson Square (the Washington, D.C., equivalent of Zuccotti Park in Manhattan) had not yet wafted the two blocks north to the Post building, for he was back a week later to praise it again, along with his stablemate E.J. Dionne and many other liberals who read into the Occupy movement numerous virtues that never existed, while wholly ignoring the vices that are only too real. And why would these clean, polite, well-mannered people, for whom an overdue library book would most likely seem like a major infraction, embrace a collection of ne’er-do-wells who are causing a public-health crisis in the midst of their city? Because they and the rest of the left are desperate for any kind of jolt to jump-start their party, which has been in a coma since the air seeped out of Obamamania sometime in 2009.
So what if the occupiers have no idea what they want, and no plans for getting it? “Liberals need a tea party, damn it,” writes Jonah Goldberg, and thus “have embraced the movement in principle with the understanding that they’ll worry about the details later, if at all.” For similar reasons, labor and assorted left-wing organizations are also circling, hoping to connect to the “99 percent” the occupiers say they are speaking for. They hope to repeat the success of the civil rights and the Tea Party movements. But there are reasons this may not work out.
The problem with Occupy is that it involves occupation, which gets it off to a very bad start. The Tea Party asked people to show up for a few hours on weekends, march, listen to speeches, perhaps call upon members of Congress, pick up their trash, and go home. Occupy by contrast asks people to leave their homes (should they have them) and live in a tent in a park for an indefinite period, for goals that are hard to explain.
What kind of people move into a tent for an indefinite period? Those without strong connections to professions or to other people, without obligations, routines, and responsibilities; without children or clients or jobs. This self-selects against the 90 percent of the population that is productive and grounded, that supports itself and works hard, not to mention the part of the population that votes. Even before the camps were heavily infiltrated by homeless and/or criminal elements, the composition was tilted to those on the fringes, frequently by choice as well as necessity, which made it more like a cultural event such as Woodstock than like the Depression-age Hoovervilles, which were peopled largely by those who once had middle-class standing and were then down on their luck.
In the Nation magazine and the Washington Post, Richard Kim and Philip Kennicott waxed ecstatic at the supposed beauty of the camps and their free-flowing style as breaking new ground in urban aesthetics, an Architectural Digest of out-of-doors life. Kim hailed it as an exercise in utopian living. Kennicott called it an aesthetic and social experiment whose “anti-consumerist ethos . . . make[s] it a direct heir of the Situationists, a radical European avant-garde collective begun in the late 1950s with ideas that remain influential today.” In New York, Kim found the movement largely consisting of artists, actors, and hipsters who were less concerned with political action than with “creating the dizzying life-world that has distinguished the movement as a cultural as well as political force.”
The political part appears open to question, as the protesters seemed to have no grasp at all of market forces, and seemed to demand the right to do what one wants and be recompensed for it, whether a demand for one’s product exists or not. Katie Davison quit her job filming fashion shoots to make a documentary about inequality and is annoyed by the need to take more jobs to fund it. Joe Therrien left his job as a public school teacher with tenure and benefits to spend three years and $35,000 to get a master of fine arts in puppetry only to discover there were no jobs in puppetry and his old school would only hire him as an untenured substitute, working the same hours for half his old pay.
In the New Yorker, George Packer profiled a sad young man lacking the ability to form either career or social connections, able to stay afloat in a thriving economy but lost and alone in a struggling one, who found in Occupy Wall Street the only community to which he had ever belonged. The Washington Post gave us a man from Vermont who walked barefoot from New York to Washington, wearing clothes of his own manufacture, and showed us the filthy black soles of his feet. Therrien has found fulfillment in his work with the Occupy Puppet Guild, making puppets of the Statue of Liberty and an Occupied Brooklyn Bridge. Asked about political action to restore budget cuts so his school could rehire him, he seemed indifferent to the idea. Davison also lacked interest in politics. “I think one day there could come a time for demands, but right now I think demands would fracture and divide people,” she told the Nation.
The civil rights and Tea Party movements addressed specific concerns—a cosmic injustice, and fiscal policies believed to be ruinous—that had means of redress through political remedies, which they pursued by legal, nonviolent means. The Occupy forces by and large have problems that do not admit of political solutions. The civil rights and Tea Party movements sprang from the middle of middle America; Occupy Wall Street from the fringe. Its happy embrace of a “communal”—and rag-tag and dirty—lifestyle was bound to alienate that much larger part of society that likes soap and water; clean clothes, sheets, and towels; indoor plumbing and sleeping in beds. The people who claimed to speak for the 99 percent who aren’t rich managed to repel the 98 percent who want order and cleanliness.
Thus the longed-for fusion of the Occupy people with the down-and-out denizens of the heartland never took place. And even if it had, it’s not clear the Democrats would have benefited. The financial collapse—a lethal brew of bad bankers and bad government regulation—was a bipartisan affair. People on all sides thought it was a good idea to have as many people as possible buying houses with no money down and subsidized mortgages: Conservatives thought it would instill middle-class values; liberals wanted to spread wealth around. Wall Street executives coined money on the disaster, but on the Fannie Mae end of it, Democratic VIPs like Franklin Raines, James Johnson, and Jamie Gorelick made out like the bandits they are. Barack Obama and other liberal lights are as close to the 1 percent (they are the 1 percent) as are leading Republicans; many themselves are worth millions of dollars, and routinely tie up the streets of big cities en route to fundraisers at which tickets go for $35,000 a shot. Occupiers have been heard and been filmed booing the name of the president. Video from the 2009 election cycle of Obama with his arm around his good friend Jon Corzine will no doubt be coming up soon.
Still, hope continues to grow in some quarters that this inchoate group of aimless souls can be turned into a political force. Organized labor plans to bus in thousands of members to pitch tents on the Mall next month for an event called Occupy Congress. In New York magazine, John Heilemann gives an exhaustive account of the attempt by a small number of hard-line, hard-left, and very professional political activists to lead what seems like the “movement” in their direction, and their ambitions are large. In the spring, he says, they believe “the protests will be back even bigger and with a vengeance . . . when, with the unfurling of the presidential election, the whole world will be watching. . . . There is fervid talk about occupying both the Democratic and Republican conventions and the National Mall.” Yes, tent cities teeming with lice, rape charges, and piles of excrement (200 pounds of it in Santa Cruz, California) are just the thing to rally swing voters.
Heilemann recalls that the last time the left went in for this kind of street theater, the combined vote for George Wallace and Richard M. Nixon swamped Hubert Humphrey by a 57-43 percent margin. He also reports on one of the driving forces of Occupy Wall Street—a Russian immigrant who became a professional protester in the Bush era, staging flash protests against the Iraq war. This past spring, he went to Madrid where he played a large part in the anti-austerity protests. In November, Spain ousted its socialist government, electing by a large majority a conservative party pledged to further austerity. As someone once said, “Bring it on.”
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.