The Left's Tea Party?

Why the Occupy Wall Street campaign is destined to fail.

Move over Tea Party, there’s a new populist movement in town. Such has been the hype that has greeted the nascent “Occupy Wall Street” campaign, whose youthful partisans most recently made headlines when, for no obvious reason, some 700 of them were arrested this past weekend for blocking the Brooklyn Bridge.

So, what is the cause for which these protestors are willing to defy the NYPD and inbound traffic? That depends on who you ask. According to sympathetic media accounts, Occupy Wall Street represents an emerging strain of left-wing economic populism, one that will become a counterweight to the fiscal conservatism of the Tea Party cadres. Media accolades apart, though, Occupy Wall Street is unlikely to replicate the Tea Party’s success.

One problem is the campaign’s agenda. In short, it doesn’t really have one. Click through the Occupy Wall Street website and you find grandiose invocations of “using the Arab Spring to achieve our ends,” but little edification about what precisely those ends are. Participants in the campaign have been no more helpful on this point. As one protestor at this weekend’s rally instructed another, “It doesn’t matter what you’re protesting. Just protest.”

Occupy Wall Street’s existential unclarity is in stark contrast to the Tea Party’s raison d’être. While it took time for the Tea Party to become an organized political force, from the very beginning it set itself against a clear problem and culprit: the ballooning federal debt and the irresponsible political class that had made it possible. Occupy Wall Street’s driving narrative is much more dubious. The campaign declares that it “will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.” Exactly who makes up the 1% is not explained. Presumably, though, it’s the top one percent of income earners, who also happen to pay 38 percent of all federal income taxes. Whatever one makes of that fact, it’s hard to muster outrage about the “greed” of the country’s most-taxed bracket.

But perhaps the “1%” is intended to be a metaphor for Wall Street and the financial industry. If their signs are any guide, the Occupy Wall Street protestors seem to think that Wall Street’s elite have committed some crime in “stealing” the billion-dollar taxpayer-funded bailouts. Whatever one’s view about the wisdom of these bailouts, though, it’s absurd to claim that they were in any way stolen by Wall Street. If anyone is to blame for misallocating taxpayer money, it’s the Bush administration that passed the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the Obama administration that extended, and the Congress that approved it.

This suggests another challenge for the Occupy Wall Street campaign. Most successful populist movements in recent years have positioned themselves against the party in power. That was true of the Internet “Netroots” who harnessed left-wing ire at President Bush to propel Howard Dean’s insurgent rise through the Democratic primaries. It remains true of the Tea Party, which has capitalized on widespread discontent with the Obama administration. Occupy Wall Street, on the other hand, has the difficult task of mobilizing left-wing opposition against a sitting left-wing president. That challenge is made all the more difficult because the disgruntled twenty-somethings who populate its ranks have a poor track record of heeding their own appeals for more “participatory democracy” by actually participating in it and voting. By contrast, as the results of the 2010 midterm elections showed, the Tea Party’s supporters show up to vote as well as to rally.

Compensating for none of these drawbacks is the fact that Occupy Wall Street’s agenda, insofar as it has one, is actually quite extreme. For all the protestors’ insistence that they represent the “99 percent” of Americans, the signs carried at this weekend’s protests tell a different story. “Abolish capitalism” was a typical one. Protestors were quoted as saying that “if Wall Street actually shuts down, we’ll be happy about it.” That may well be true, but given that Wall Street and the financial industry remain the country’s economic engine, such sentiments are unlikely to find broad purchase. Americans may be repulsed by crony capitalism, but they aren’t ready to ditch the system as a whole.

Ultimately, the main reason the Occupy Wall Street campaign will fail is that it is not about Wall Street at all. Read through the moving testimonials of the self-styled “99 percent” on the campaign’s website and you find that they are mainly young people concerned about getting by in tough economic times – paying their student loans, paying the rent, finding employment and their way in life. One woman notes, “I am young. I am educated and hard working. I am not able to pay my bills. I am afraid of what the future holds.” That anxiety is perfectly natural and understandable. It’s also the reason that this campaign will not get far. At the end of the day, the thing the protestors really seem to want from Wall Street is a job.