On my way to the subway station the other day, I was somewhat startled to glimpse a community newspaper headline screaming “OCCUPY’S ONE-YEAR BLUES” on a newsstand. Then I remembered that, lo and behold, the first anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street protests is fast approaching. I was momentarily taken aback by the headline because I had almost totally forgotten about Occupy Wall Street. Less than a year ago, the airwaves and interwebs were burning up with talk about this audacious and potentially game-changing new movement. Now, in the middle of an election campaign that will determine whether and how Washington will address OWS’ concerns, the movement itself seems moribund. What happened?
In truth, I had a feeling it would turn out this way. It’s a symptom of a blunder that is commonplace on the hard Left: a delusional obsession with street protests as engines of political change. OWS should have pivoted early on from staging rallies to pressuring elected representatives to bring about concrete policy change in Washington. Instead, they steered clear of elections and lobbying — the main channels through which political decisions are made — and clung to the streets. If OWS is now down (if not necessarily yet out), its defeat is of its own making.
Strategically, demonstrating for months or years on end is rank foolishness. Protests by themselves usually serve awareness-raising purposes only; the first couple of months of chanting and drum-beating more than did that trick. Rallies and demonstrations alone were never likely to influence the financial sector’s behavior meaningfully. Actually “occupying Wall Street” was never possible; the authorities would — and should — never have allowed it. Any Wall Street Occupiers with a grain of sense in their heads would have followed the Tea Party’s lead, lobbying lawmakers to move the nation’s economic policy leftward wherever possible. Tax cuts cannot be repealed — nor bailouts denied, nor industries re-regulated, nor corporate greed checked — in the streets.
The proof of this is in the pudding — or, rather, in the Tea Party leaves. That movement’s political clout became clear as early as the 2010 midterm elections, when it helped the Republicans retake control of the House of Representatives. The resulting Tea Party-backed caucus in Congress has since stymied Democrats’ hopes of enacting new government programs and helped bring on last year’s game of chicken over the raising of the debt ceiling. The movement even knocked over a number of incumbent Republican officials deemed insufficiently small-government in their policies, denying them party nominations for re-election. In the past year, by contrast, has a single Democratic politician felt pressure from OWS to shift leftward or ship out?
Worse yet, Occupy Wall Street went on to employ methods that seemed almost calculated to alienate the very middle- and working-class people whose support it needed to win. They tried to “occupy” public parks, with the result that various provocateurs, vagrants, and sundry other interlopers infiltrated the parks and contributed to unsanitary and unsafe conditions. They tried to block traffic on bridges and to organize “general strikes” and other events that would disrupt the day-to-day conduct of business and other general public affairs. These and other methods were never bound to accomplish anything other than to bring the wrath of the police down on the movement. Who ever saw turkeys so eager for Thanksgiving?
The onset of winter was the perfect time for the Occupiers to migrate from the streets into the party process, where the shots are really called. They could then have organized to wield genuine political clout in the 2012 elections. Yet all that enthusiasm has been wasted, rendering the movement more or less irrelevant in this campaign — exactly when it should matter most. Not for nothing has one Occupy Boston activist described it as a failed “political Woodstock that went on a little bit too long.”
Occupy Wall Street has largely petered out so far because too many of its participants remain childishly infatuated with radical 1960s tactics that are no more effective now than they were back then. One year on, the movement faces a stark choice: grow up and wise up — or be consigned to the dustbin of history.