Bob Reich, former Clinton Labor Secretary and one time candidate for Governor of Massachusetts, has a post up about why the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement are different to their parties. He covers old history well, and makes the essential point that the elitism of the Democratic Party has more problems embracing populism than does the elitism of the Republican Party. Recent history, where he's been a prof, is less well covered.
The Tea Party was a pre-existing movement of anti-Obama racism and anti-communism. The mixture of right wing ethnic bigotry with right wing confederacy ideas, with right wing economic and social ideas is not very hard to imagine or find. It became visible after the election when Republican elites, such as the Koch brothers, dumped money on it, and weeded out its native leadership, which was far too overtly unstable and racist for television, with their own choice of it, and channeled already existing Republican activists through it. One way the weeding was done was by charging entrance fees to Tea Party events, which were then refunded to the people they wanted there.
This was harnessed into pushing the Republican primaries to the right, and then in taking the House of Representatives, which gave the Republicans a bargain chip in the Federal government. The Democrats, for their part, were too busy getting rid of progressives to defend correctly. The cost for the ideological purity was fairly low: they picked up Massachussetts' Scott Brown which they would not have gotten otherwise, and lost the Delaware Senate seat, which they probably would have, plus moved several other seats to the right: Pennsylvania and Utah most prominently. The ideological distance between Brown and Castle is not large, and while Brown is a lightweight, he's still a reliable vote on filibusters, which is what matters. At the end of the day then, the right wing got a great deal, for very little net pain.
The reason that the Republicans could do this is that they have a single mantra which units economic, social, and elite, reactionaries: anti-tax mania. While these groups disagree on almost everything, they agree that taxes and the Federal Government are evil. Not merely bad, but evil. Hence the Tea Party could credibly say that they were part of doing job one, which is kill the Federal Government's ability to tax.
The Tea Party then fits into elite Republicanism enough for its purpose. It is already dying, because it is no longer being funded. Quick, how many people in late American Colonial costumes have you seen bouncing up to television cameras recently? They were plants, and obviously so.
Obama We Sing. Obama Will Shine. Obama We Shout.
The Occupy movement was started, to no small extent, by disappointed Obama activists of the community organizing stripe. The community they are organizing is the unemployed. They are in fact a conservative movement: purging the demonstrating community of anarchists, communists, marxists, and other assorted left wing grinding groups. This is intended to make the protests more mainstreamable and effective. Since it has been observed for sometime that the single issue nanopolitics of "Free mumia" or Palestinian statehood blunt the message of organized leftism, it was an obvious thing to try. The movement has metastized quickly because it moved through the same organizers who are now essentially unwelcome in the Re-elect ecology. Think people like Van Jones, who believed in Obama, and to some extent still do: his advisors are bad, but not the man, he just needs pressure from the left to be cover.
This creates a simple streamlined message: Greed is Bad, Jobs are Good, We've been Screwed. Populism is best when it is monosyllabic.
One one hand it is clear that keeping the movement tweezed is beyond their ability, they want a very, very, very specific protest movement, to a very, very, very specific effect. What they have done, is re-invent the Bonus Army and the Hooverville.
Occupy Wall Street then is an important awakening. First, it is the moment where Americans realize and admit that we are in a depression. Not a recession, a depression, a self-perpetuating cycle of lower economic activity. Second, it is a move on the left away from the "clap louder" orthodoxy of the compromised left, and away from the "rainbow coalition" model of marches past. OWS is about how corporate greed killed your jobs, and little else. Third, it mainstreams protest on the left, displacing "the middle class" as the hero, with Wall Street as the villain.
Already everyone is pleading to turn OWS into whatever movement they want it to be, to be directed at repeating what they want repeated. This is a waste of time. There is nothing on the table politically that will do very much good, and as Reich points out, the most important demand, to humble the banks, isn't going to happen.
The reality is, that being compromised works both ways. Obama supporters are struggling already to push OWS towards demands that Obama wants to give, such as a trade war with China, rather than demands he does not want to give, such as prosecutions of the people who were key to the financial collapse. OWS is struggling within itself. The original core of leaders have lost control over the movement. That isn't to say it is turning towards riots or black bloc tactics, but the hactivists, who created the megaphone that it needs, are not so squeamish as to stay inside the law, and have not. This is because hactivists already are enemies of the state, and the state is willing to destroy their lives. They aren't people who are going back to their own little homes afterwards, because in the copyright wars, there is no afterwards, there are life sentences to be banned from the internet, which is effectively a death sentence economically.
What is lost on the people demonstrating is the problem of scale. In effect, the reason there are no prosecutions, is because one would in the end have to lock up virtually the entire banking and real estate systems: from the robosigners, appraisers, loan originators, realtors and agents on the bottom, through the builders who participated in schemes to pump up real estate, through the loan processors and aggregators, through the bank securitizers, through the bond traders, through the shadow bankers, all the way up to the top.
This was, in effect, a revolution: a bottom interested in building and flipping homes, which is a vast share of the American economy, to a top looking for something to securitize and sell as safer than it was. Adding it up, it comes to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people involved. We would have to let go all of the drug crimes, and still not have enough cells for all of them.
Thus for the OWS to prevail, it would need to have a similar scale of people willing to be arrested. Not 700, but 700,000. Enough so that every cell on the East Coast would be filled with an occupant, and not an alleged perpetrator.
However what it has done: create depression consciousness, has already had an effect. Policy this summer, globally, was foot on the brakes austerity. This slowed the economy, pushing some areas of the developed world into recession, and pushed down the price of oil. In economic terms, it was a "landing" and a relatively hard landing. Now the consensus is that the global economy is at the brink, and that something must be done. Nothing that will actually produce recovery, but like a skipping stone, to bounce off the surface of the water, and fly a short time to the next skip.
Another consideration is that the need to have a liberal pressure movement, directed at economic ends, will alter the future. Consider what would have happened had their been an occupation of Washington around Bush v Gore.
Thus, instead of trying to tell the OWSers what they ought to be about, it is more important to realize what they are about. They are the activist groups fooled by Obama, and they are segueing from pleading with him, to telling him that they are ready to move past him. It is a tactic not unfamiliar to the Washington Post, which can be counted on running articles on the need for a radical centrist third party every time Obama does not cut Federal spending fast enough. The message from the money, and from the streets, is now the same: "we made you, and we can unmake you."
However, these two forces are now pulling in opposite directions. Elites want More austerity, even as the banks are running out of free money. OWS, wants jobs and prosecutions, and that means spending.
What has already been done.
Occupy Wall Street has already made America acknowledge that we are in a depression.
Occupy Wall Street has liberated protest both from the day protest model, and from the chain of unmainstreamable marxism. It isn't that there isn't mainstreamable marxism, but that isn't the kind that people had to go through to get involved in demonstrations. The center-left has taken control of the infrastructure of protest.
Occupy Wall Street has crystallized the reality to elites that this wave of austerity is at an end, as the London Riots did in England.
Occupy Wall Street fatally weakens Obama's attempt to re-coöpt the liberals. While people like Krugman, who want to believe, are all happy talk about the promise of a job's program which will not be passed, except the corporate tax cut parts, and thus cannot kick in until after the next November election, more than a year from now, the reality is that after a month of pushing from Obama, he is now at an average of 41% in Gallup's approval poll, at a time in his presidency when even Jimmy Carter was able to get 50% briefly. He is likely to be the first post-Nixonian President not to be at or near 50% approval a year from election, and his team is already narrowing the playing field, admitting there will be no broad second term mandate, and that if re-elected, it will be like Bush on a narrow coalition.
Of course there is the usual detritus of demonstration chasing begosphere types, but that's not important, OWS is putting down roots of direct donations in kind. That's important.
What is important is that Americans have lost hope, and lost the shame of pretense that they are really "temporarily embarrassed billionaires," to update Sinclair Lewis' old frame.
Instead of talking about OWS is the future tense, it is already here, and it has a message that is already clear: utopian populism.
Greed is bad.
Jobs are good.
We've been screwed.