Occupy Wall Street Need Goals for Public Support

October 18th, 2011

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This piece was originally published by Politico.

Austerity is so last year.

It was all the rage in 2010 with the rise of the tea party. This year, an inevitable backlash has set in. With the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street protests, we’re seeing a pivot in the opposite direction — toward fairness.

In 2010, the debt crisis terrified governments all over the world. If we don’t start living within our means, government leaders warned, we could all turn into Greece.

In the United States, the tea party movement forced austerity onto the national agenda. Cut government spending! Balance the budget! Or else the tea party will get you. Which is exactly what it did in the 2010 midterm.

The threat of tea party opposition scared the bejesus out of congressional Republicans. In the House of Representatives, the tea party elected a huge class of freshman legislators, who became the Austerity Army. No stimulus spending! No unemployment compensation! No disaster relief unless it’s paid for!

But guess what? Pain is not popular. This year, the economy has taken a turn for the worse. The threat of a double-dip recession is real. And we’re seeing the first stirrings of protest on the left.

It started with Occupy Wall Street in New York and took about two weeks to spread all over the country and the world. What are the protesters angry about? Economic insecurity. Globalization. Growing inequality. Corporate bailouts. Hopeless foreign wars. Wage stagnation. Joblessness. Home foreclosures. In other words, everything that’s happened since the financial collapse in 2008.

Many issues embraced by the Occupy Wall Street protesters are popular. Tax the rich? In the Time magazine poll, 73 percent of Americans say yes. By better than two to one, Americans polled by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal feel it’s a good idea to raise taxes on the wealthy and on corporations because they should pay their fair share for government programs.

Less than a third endorse the alternative view that raising taxes would be a bad idea because the wealthy and corporations would have less money to invest and help grow the economy.

In the Time poll, only 27 percent say they have a favorable opinion of the tea party movement. Twice as many — 54 percent — have a favorable opinion of the Wall Street protests. Economic populism is the left’s territory. The right’s territory is cultural populism — “traditional values.”

President Barack Obama is trying, very cautiously, to adopt the anti-Wall Street cause as his own. Obama’s chief political adviser, David Plouffe, told The Washington Post, “We intend to make it one of the central elements of the campaign next year … that the president passed Wall Street reform and our opponent and the other party want to repeal it.”

This, despite the fact that many of Obama’s key economic advisers have strong ties to Wall Street and the big banks.

Where the Wall Street protesters are vulnerable is not on their issues but on their behavior. Tea party activists describe them as “a disorganized unruly mob of shiftless protesters.”

The tea party is trying to delegitimize the protesters by circulating shocking photos and stories of radicalism and lawbreaking. “The more you read about them and their behavior,” the leader of one tea party group told POLITICO, “the more it looks like they’ll implode on their own.”

We’re still a long way from the 1930s, when gangs of Reds and Blacks fought each other in the streets of Vienna. But street fighting is beginning to seem less farfetched. Reds vs. Blues in the streets of New York?

Let 1972 stand as a warning to Occupy Wall Street. In 1972, the American public was thoroughly opposed to the war in Vietnam. Sixty percent of Americans said they thought the war was a mistake.

But only 38 percent voted for the Democratic peace candidate, Sen. George McGovern. Many voters who were fed up with the war were also disgusted by the behavior of the anti-war protesters. They voted for incumbent President Richard M. Nixon, who promised, “Peace is at hand.”

The Occupy Wall Street protesters have no commitment to electoral politics. They say they believe in “direct democracy” and “government by consensus” — which sounds like endless meetings.

Wall Street bankers interviewed by The New York Times dismissed the protesters as “a ragtag group looking for sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.”

“This is not a political movement; this is a social movement,” one protest organizer told POLITICO. OK, but what are its objectives? “A better future,” said a New York organizer. “A future free from austerity, growing inequality, unemployment, tax injustice and a political elite that ignores its citizens.”

Do they imagine they can get there by remaining pure and uncontaminated by politics?

The most effective protest movements on the left have been anti-war movements. They did what the tea party is doing now — play political hardball. Despite the backlash against the protesters, it worked. They ended the Vietnam War, and they forced the drawdown in Iraq.

The left doesn’t really need to imitate the tea party. It needs to pay attention to its own history.