Should Liberals Like Occupy Wall Street?

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Get a job, you hippies! Oh, wait, that's the problem. Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

What should liberals and the Democratic Party do about the Occupy Wall Street movement? A quarrel has broken out among liberals as Democrats and liberal organizations have slowly moved to support the protests. Leftie Glenn Greenwald urges demonstrators to avoid the Democratic Party because the Democratic Party is evil and shills for Wall Street. The center-left New Republic editorializes that Democrats should avoid the demonstrators because the demonstrators are crazy socialists. (TNR senior editors Tim Noah, Jonathan Cohn, and John Judis dissent.) Greenwald is angry at TNR’s editorial, apparently failing to notice that TNR is advocating essentially the same outcome he is.

Occupy Wall Street is an embryonic movement, and many of its current members are loony. It may go nowhere. But liberals and mainstream liberal institutions can help shape the movement into a positive force.

The comparison hanging over Occupy Wall Street since its inception has been the tea-party movement. Conservatives have gleefully played up the contrast. (See Karl Rove and George Will today contrasting lawful, patriotic tea partiers against scruffy, cop-hating Wall Street occupiers.) At first glance, the conservative smugness has little to support it — Occupy Wall Street is far more popular than the tea-party movement right now.

What has the right so smug is the understanding that radical movements benefit Republicans more than Democrats. In the United States, conservatives far outnumber liberals. Democrats, to win, must straddle coalitions of liberals and moderates, while Republicans have less of a need to win moderates. Mainstream liberalism is simply a more technocratic ideology, less suited to the ardent certainties of a protest rally. (My favorite sign from the Jon Stewart rally captured the dilemma perfectly: "What do we want? Evidence-based change! When do we want it? After peer review!) ) What’s more, tea-party protestors simply look more like the political center — white and middle class. Occupy Wall Street exudes the counterculture. Those Guy Fawkes masks don't help, either.

And yet, despite these dangers, the movement offers real promise to liberals. Right now, the Democratic Party is suffering the worst of all worlds on the economy. Voters see them as in bed with Wall Street, and Wall Street sees them as implacably hostile. Republicans have successfully directed economic rage away from the titans of the economy and toward Washington. The strange alchemy of right-wing activism converted popular hostility toward Wall Street into enhanced power for politicians dedicated to doing Wall Street’s bidding, through deregulation and tax cuts for owners of capital.

If the protests are to play a positive role, it will be in two ways: refocusing public attention on Wall Street, and recentering the political discourse. We have spent nearly three years in which the “left-wing” position in the political discourse has been held down by President Obama, a moderate technocrat. He needs something to counterpose his ideas against.

Ideally, Occupy Wall Street would organize itself around smart, progressive ideas that lack political support in Washington. (Matt Taibbi has some fine suggestions.) No doubt some of its ideas will be radical or silly. Democrats shouldn’t embrace those ideas, but it is still possible for radical ideas to help by establishing a left-wing pole against which to gauge Obama’s moderate policies.

All this argues for a few general principles. Liberal organizations should support the movement and help push it in liberal (as opposed to radical) directions. The mere act of increasing the movement’s size would naturally push it toward the center — there are only so many Noam Chomsky acolytes to be found. Democrats should neither embrace nor condemn it, but treat it as an important message of popular discontent.