Occupy Wall Street: The Left Alternative to the Tea Party
When does a protest become a success? This is the question behind the increasing national media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Entering its third week, and persevering after the 700 plus arrests last Saturday at the Brooklyn Bridge, Occupy Wall Street has reached its first epiphany: this is really happening. And what is happening is arguably the emergence of a center-left grassroots challenge to the Tea Party.
For the idealists and activists participating in the demonstrations, Occupy Wall Street is the belated American version of the kind of viral, social media-organized demonstrations that have spread in Europe and the Middle East. Although its initial organization was helped in part by groups like Adbusters and Anonymous, Occupy Wall Street has a grassroots-fueled improvisatory feel. There is something surreal about the camp at Liberty Plaza, with its ramshackle kitchen and library. At first glance it resembles the counterculture spread of a music festival. But then the diversity of the protestors comes into focus: There are hardhats, suits, students, the unemployed, curious foreigners, and the young and old alike from all over the country congregating and talking. This is not, contrary to what cynics or skeptics may think, a glorified anarchist pow wow. Indeed, the constant (and heavily international) press presence attests to the growing significance of the protests. Despite its loose organization, Occupy Wall Street has the air of a genuine movement, one that is coalescing not just against the ills of corporate greed and power, but as a counterweight to the Tea Party.
According to Jose Martin, one of the daily participants, “Much of the left considers this incredibly naive. But the naivete is what has made it grow and made it strong. [Occupy Wall Street] has not been led by jaded leftists, frustrated over past failures that were replete with internal divisions.” Martin is impressed with the demonstrators’ self-sustaining capacity, and attributes much of Occupy Wall Street’s growth to the individuals that have been camping out at night since September 17. Although he is cautious about predicting the nascent movement’s trajectory, he insists the three-week mark is proof Occupy Wall Street is a viable force. Reflecting on the left’s marginalization during the Bush years, Martin concludes “the left made mistakes by blaming Bush and the Republicans, as opposed to going after the system.” For people like Martin, Occupy Wall Street is in effect the first rumbling of a newly activist left wing that could redefine civic engagement at the most local level. He sees the movement as part of a new discourse that is challenging the right wing’s control over the terms of political debate, as well as an opportunity to call out the mainstream media’s complacency toward–and often, collusion with–the hard right’s economic agenda.
The environment is ripe for a backlash against the Tea Party, a backlash that could involve alienated political moderates as much as the left. The Tea Party-led rage toward Washington over government spending and the nation’s debt in many ways has been a convenient distraction from the unabated job crisis and the unseemly surge in corporate profits. But after the fruitless political bargaining and general war of attrition between the White House and House GOP this summer, it seems very possible that the Tea Party’s momentum is petering out. In this sense, Occupy Wall Street’s timing is fortuitous, because there is a complete vacuum of credible political power when it comes to even articulating comprehensive solutions for the nation’s economic crisis.
What remains to be seen is how much Occupy Wall Street will set itself apart from previous American left wing movements. The loose coalition that has thus far defined Occupy Wall Street is both an asset and a liability. Its openness and its enthusiasm for citizen-driven change starkly contrasts with the Tea Party’s incessant shrillness, demagoguery, and big money backing. But that same openness attracts people with fringe beliefs–like 9/11 conspiracy theorists–and that association can easily turn off people otherwise eager to become part of a progressive future.
It is also too early to tell if Occupy Wall Street will have a direct influence on electoral politics in 2012. While the opportunity is there for the independent left and the Democratic Party to join forces, the post-New Deal Democratic Party has historically had more trouble maintaining its coalition than the GOP. However, if presented as a populist movement, the reemergence of left wing progressivism in mainstream political discourse may reset the terms of debate. And although the Obama Administration is struggling to find the pulse of the American worker, the optimistic energy surrounding Occupy Wall Street has its antecedent in the heady days of Obama’s grassroots campaign operation. (Of course for those who are disenchanted with the Democratic Party, the vast money machine behind Obama’s reelection effort is in effect another pillar in the status quo,’business as usual/business is first’ way of American politics. Yet as the only powerful brand in Democratic politics after the Clintons, Obama still has the cultural, if not legislative, power to harness a new progressive movement were he to find the will.)
For its proponents, the existence of Occupy Wall Street in itself is evidence that the national political narrative can change. In their view, the mainstream notion that America is somehow fundamentally a center-right country is no longer relevant to the ways in which average citizens can empower themselves against oligarchic interests. They would go on to argue that the center-left, despite being ignored, is capable of being a force in American politics again. As the electorate saw with the rise of the Tea Party, the first measure of outsider political success is being acknowledged as a constituency that the establishment must contend with. By that measure, it would be foolish now to dismiss what Occupy Wall Street has already achieved.
Photo from wikimedia commons.
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