In some ways, the Occupy movement resembles the Tea Party. Both have harnessed anger over the crony capitalism that pervades Washington and Wall Street, where lobbyists buy influence with politicians and cut deals that favor themselves and hobble their competition. Both protest movements object to the big bailouts engineered by a Democratic Congress and the Bush administration, and then continued under the Obama administration for banks and American automakers. And both movements are at their heart iconoclastic, trying to replace the Establishment with something more responsive to the will of the people.
Democrats ignored and often belittled the Tea Party in 2009 and 2010, and paid a steep price for it in the midterm elections. Could Republicans underestimate the Occupy movement and face the same fate in 2012?
There isn't much doubt that the Occupy movement taps into real resentment on the Left, much like the Tea Party did on the Right. While people tend to think of the Tea Party as a reaction to Barack Obama, they miss the lingering anger over the mess made by the Republican Congress from 2001 to 2006, especially on spending and pork-barrel politics. Conservatives think of that period as a huge opportunity lost to an ill-considered drive to build a so-called "permanent majority" by leveraging lobbyists and spreading government cash to cronies rather than conducting the systemic reform promised by the GOP in the 1994 "revolution." Many of those who sat on their hands in disgust in 2006 while Democrats won back both chambers of Congress marched with their feet to Tea Party rallies in 2009, in large part to ensure that the Republicans who eventually won back Congress were made of sterner and more principled stuff.
The emphasis on Wall Street rather than Washington as the focus of anger and blame puts Occupy into an intellectual paradox that will likely limit its impact.
In that, the Occupy movement has its parallel. The organizers of Occupy are the traditional Democratic base of unions and ideological progressive groups like Alliance for Global Justice, and they feel as disaffected about the current administration as conservatives did from Republicans in 2006. Unions have not won any of their battles on Card Check, and states like Wisconsin and Ohio have gutted the privileges that kept state employees locked into mandatory dues and union-provided benefits at exorbitant prices. They are in retreat across the nation as states look at teetering pension systems and do the math that clearly shows that massive reforms will have to be imposed soon to keep governments from falling into bankruptcy.
Progressives have fewer real gripes, as the Obama administration practically threw away its House majority in 2010 by ignoring its failing economic policies to concentrate on passing a health-care overhaul that relatively few wanted. His administration has indulged mightily in crony capitalism, giving favors to campaign bundlers like George Kaiser and his solar-tech firm Solyndra — favors that cost taxpayers more than $500 million. Liberals resent the fact that Obama hasn't pushed their agenda through Congress, and share the same resentments of the conservative grassroots about financial-sector bailouts.
So far, the Occupy protests have mainly drawn the usual suspects — anarchists and ideologues who spend their lives attempting to provoke responses from police and gain media attention. Some of the same organizations — unions, AGJ — have agitated at World Trade Organizations and G-8 summits, most notably in Seattle in 1999. In St. Paul, Minn., I saw the same kind of activists form into the umbrella RNC Welcoming Committee and organize violent protests at the Republican National Convention. But could this turn into something more?
It's not out of the question. Those protests took place during periods of prosperity — in the latter case, before the recession became a collapse — and remained fringe affairs. That is certainly not the case any longer with Occupy, which is why targeting Wall Street will hit more of a resonant chord. The pressure of a chronic economic malaise means that we have millions of people who had been gainfully employed a few years ago who now find themselves outside of the economic system, with no stake in the status quo. They might find themselves agreeing with either movement — and on the streets demanding change of some sort. Right now, the attention is on Occupy, and that may draw a significant number of angry people who wouldn't normally sympathize with hard-Left groups like AGJ or consider joining a union unless forced to do so.
However, the emphasis on Wall Street rather than Washington as the focus of anger and blame puts Occupy into an intellectual paradox that will likely limit its impact. Certainly Wall Street bears its share of responsibility for creating toxic derivatives that nearly killed the financial sector. But the derivatives failed because the securities on which they were based – congressionally-approved Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac securities – turned out to be junk bonds. The current issues of spending and debt originate in Congress, where the Democrats who replaced Republicans in 2006 promising fiscal responsibility turned out worse than their GOP predecessors, ballooning deficits to well past a trillion dollars a year.
In this the Tea Party has a coherent ideology that opposes government interventions in private markets and runaway spending and debt: They want a smaller government. Occupy protests many of the same problems, but in response to these issues, the Occupy movement wants a bigger federal government that would punish banks and wealthy Americans. They apparently want seizures and redistribution, which necessarily means more bureaucracies, higher spending, and many more opportunities for collusion between authorities and monied interests in one way or another.
The true solution for the problem is government reform, not increasing governmental authority. A new poll from The Hill shows the majority of likely voters agree. Fifty-six percent blame Washington more for the current economic malaise, while only 36 percent blame Wall Street more. If Democrats align themselves with the minority and try to co-opt the Occupy movement as a means to fight the next election, they will not only find themselves marginalized with the general electorate in 2012, they may find themselves under attack from their own putative Occupy allies who see the Democratic establishment as part of the problem. They may find that allying with the street protests will put them in a replay of Chicago 1968 all over again — and send independents fleeing towards the Tea Party instead.