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Occupy Wall Street: “They have taken to the street to lead themselves.”

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in a shocking announcement designed to force the mass layoffs of city workers (at least by his own description), has decided that Occupy Wall Street protesters can stay indefinitely in Zuccotti Park. I don’t know that this is totally his decision to make, but it generally means that the police shouldn’t be rounding people up from the park, and that the core protest in the growing movement will be able to continue as long as the protesters want.  Already, within weeks of the beginning of the occupation, half the country has heard about the protests. Even Kanye West showed up at the New York protest today, presumably to express solidarity for the message against an abundance of greed. And the fact that little subset occupations have popped up even in my little neighborhood of Venice, miles away from a bigger occupation in downtown LA, shows that this movement is spreading rapidly.

While Republican politicians have decried the protesters as a mob and accused them of sowing class unrest, Democrats have turned sharply supportive of the protests, though I dispute Rick Klein’s premise that Democrats will be able to “own” the OWS movement. Heck, if civil rights leader John Lewis can’t get a speaking slot, I don’t think any politician can. And anyway, as Robert Reich points out, the ethos of the OWS movement conflicts sharply with the ethos of the funders of the Democratic Party:

In the early decades of the twentieth century, the Democratic Party had no trouble embracing economic populism. It charged the large industrial concentrations of the era – the trusts – with stifling the economy and poisoning democracy. In the 1912 campaign Woodrow Wilson promised to wage “a crusade against powers that have governed us … that have limited our development … that have determined our lives … that have set us in a straightjacket to so as they please.” The struggle to break up the trusts would be, in Wilson’s words, nothing less than a “second struggle for emancipation.” […]

By the 1960s, though, the Democratic Party had given up on populism. Gone from presidential campaigns were tales of greedy businessmen and unscrupulous financiers. This was partly because the economy had changed profoundly. Postwar prosperity grew the middle class and reduced the gap between rich and poor. By the mid-1950s, a third of all private-sector employees were unionized, and blue-collar workers got generous wage and benefit increases […]

Enter Ronald Reagan, master storyteller, who jumped into the populist breach. If Reagan didn’t invent right-wing populism in America he at least gave it full-throated voice. “Government is the problem, not the solution,” he intoned, over and over again. In Reagan’s view, Washington insiders and arrogant bureaucrats stifled the economy and hobbled individual achievement.

The Democratic Party never regained its populist footing. To be sure, Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992 promising to “fight for the forgotten middle class” against the forces of “greed,” but Clinton inherited such a huge budget deficit from Reagan and George H.W. Bush that he couldn’t put up much of a fight. And after losing his bid for universal health care, Clinton himself announced that the “era of big government” was over – and he proved it by ending welfare.

I’d change “couldn’t” to “didn’t” in that last paragraph, but it’s true that the Democratic Party hasn’t really had to contend with an economic populist movement from the left in over a generation. More recently, they have set their own boundaries of the possible on economic policy, and they constrained themselves quite a bit, the way a boa constrictor constrains its prey. To the extent that there was a progressive movement, it was based more in identity and social policy.

As Gregory Djerejian writes, this was inevitable. A seemingly endless recession sparked by a financial meltdown was bound to create a backlash, one way or another. The President famously said in a meeting with 13 Bankers that he was the only thing standing between them and the pitchforks. He cannot hold them back any longer. Djerejian sums up the national mood:

Speaking to several of these protesters today, I met MBA students who cannot find jobs (one even told me his GPA at business school, a respectable 3.2) and law students in a similar predicament. As money gets wasted in epic fashion overseas for desperately flawed ‘provincial reconstruction teams’ in Iraq and risible ‘Government-in-a-Box’ initiatives in Afghanistan, these kids are staring at mountains of debt and an equally daunting lack of viable employment prospects (the MBA student was underemployed working as a barista at Starbucks). So there are intelligent faces and voices in these crowds—not just aimless rabble-rousers out for a rise—and I can sense this movement becoming more contagious (for instance, I detected among several of the more junior police officers perhaps some degree of sympathy for the protesters). To some extent, after all, these are our young screaming out in need, meriting not kettling and reprimands, but job prospects and dignity […] They want accountability and dignity and prospects. Their leaders have failed them. So they have taken to the street to lead themselves.

Former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter actually had some good thoughts as well. Whether the Democrats can get fuel from this movement or whether they become terrified of it, what is happening around the country is ultimately a statement of hope from a disaffected group of people who want to build something and will not let the constraints of politics or big money get in the way.

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David Dayen

David Dayen