The phenomenon that is “Occupy Wall Street” boggles the mind. The inchoate protests across the country that have no rhyme, reason or focus — other than to “just protest” — marks either the canary in social discontent’s coal mine, or Thermidor for the progressive Left. Regardless, watching people protest with no coherent message, animated only by their desire to benefit from taxpayer largesse, proves instructive.
First, the Occupy movement, despite its small size and dazzling parade of clowns, represents the same type of discontent from the Left as the Tea Party marked for the Right. The Tea Party said: “I don’t want to pay for other people’s bailouts.” The Occupy movement says: “You paid for everyone else’s bailout, now where’s mine?”
It’s easy — too easy, for some conservative pundits — to let ridicule substitute for engagement in their approach to the Occupy phenomenon. The “where’s mine?” attitude on full flower in New York is easy to dismiss as naive or to caricature as the whinings of people too stupid to realize that a master’s degree in Medieval French Feminist Literature has relatively little market power. The dismissals are on-point, to be sure, but they miss the point at the same time. The protesters are demanding personal bailouts. It’s not caricature if it’s fact, and the fact is, student loan debt (most significantly) has fanned this particular flame of discontent, and those left with more debt than they can pay back really do feel like they’ve been sold a bill of goods. Deriding it without acknowledging that people genuinely believe they deserve a personal bailout risks missing the forest for the face-pierced trees, and acting like personal bailouts are unreasonable despite our history with all sorts of public bailouts (not to mention welfare policy) constitutes willful blindness of a point that many consider to be valid in principle if not always in practice.
Second, the emergence of the Occupy movement and its sycophantic support among mainstream Democrats from Obama on down, unmasks in a creative new way the far Left agenda. The general public so far seems less than amused. Conservatives and even some moderates snicker at some of the demands that have leaked from the “General Assembly” in New York — including immediate debt forgiveness for everyone, everywhere — but in truth, they are doing everyone a form of service. They are showing the country where the real Left pole lies. Elected Democrats shy away from this pole even though they’re beholden to it, much as elected Republicans have their own love-hate relationship with the far Right. Yet the challenge from the Left is that the old divisions (centrist, liberal, progressive, socialist, communist, anarchist) are eroding just as the internal divisions eroded within the Right in the last generation. People point to today’s monolithic Republican Party with much less internal ideological diversity as being a bad thing, yet this outcome is the end result of a process beginning with Watergate and continuing through the GWB years — and it’s only now beginning in earnest within the Left. Just as moderate Republicans are an endangered species, so also are the moderate Democrats: Just look at how the Blue Dogs were wiped off the map in 2010.
This means that in the coming years, the folks to the left side of the center almost surely will undergo the wrenching sea-change in ideology that will pull Democrats further to the fringe and impose a more rigid political and ideological template on rank-and-file politicians. The Republicans moved further Right in the 1990s and 2000s; the Democrats will move further Left in the 2010s and 2020s.
A NoLabelist third-party conglomeration of moderates is unlikely to prevail; the system revolves around a two-party duopoly, and in any case, not many beyond the ranks of self-appointed public intellectuals feel the call to rally to the cause of moderation. Instead, the independents will trend Right or tune out altogether.
It’s not hard to envision this moment — the Occupy movement, the weakness of the Obama administration, the ongoing failures of Keynesian stimulus, “leading from behind,” the backlash against Obamacare — as the point where another generational change begins. A change where the aspirations of the progressives decisively lose favor with the broad Middle America, and Democrats seem poised to devolve into decades of bitter internecine wars of ideology. Whatever the outcome for the Democrats, the progressive movement looks like its on the verge of collapse, at least as a serious contender for mindshare among educated citizens.
The progressives want to Occupy Wall Street. Fine. Yet it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if the net result is that we’re now witnessing the first wave of the liberation of Wall Street from the powers of regulation and redistribution that are only now shedding the pretext of moderation and allowing their full ideology to flower.
America is a center-right nation. Always has been. When the progressives could cloak their ambitions under the veneer of moderation, Democrats have been successful. Just look at Bill Clinton. It takes a real crisis of public confidence mixed with effective blame assignment toward the Right to elect a true left-wing president — FDR, LBJ, BHO. Under ordinary circumstances (think McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis, William Jennings Bryan, or even TR’s Bull Mooses) the further to the left they drift, the less likely the odds they’ll be elected.
Market economies work. That so many graduates with useless degrees are unemployed sort of proves the point. As long as the Right presents a solid pro-market strategy that leaves reasonable room for helping out the less fortunate, conservatives will win election after election. A pro-growth agenda that holds people responsible for the choices they make while providing a safety net to help those whose choices were constrained by circumstance will lift more boats than a soak-the-rich, give-to-the-poor Robin Hood fantasy that seems to animate the Left lately.
And as far as the freak shows in Zucotti Park — laugh, if you must. But beneath the unwashed hippie facade lies a discontent that could fizzle. Or explode. Conservatives would be well-advised to keep eyes wide open while they chuckle at the spectacle, lest they find themselves being tomorrow’s lion fodder.