A few union leaders and numerous Democratic politicians looking to impress their children have opined gently on the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Soon everyone will be expected to take sides on this formless melodrama. The growing number of protests around the country—hell, why not around the world—will be duly reported. Already, this so-called movement is being caricatured as the left’s response to the Tea Party.
Naomi Klein, the J.K. Rowling of outlandish non-fiction, blessed the protests last week. She saluted her New York audience’s most extravagant conceit: that they speak for 99% of humanity. She congratulated them for having a fixed address and a fixed target: the greed of the other one percent. Klein praised a gathering that answers to text messages and has no agreed program—except admiring their own empathetic qualities—as “horizontal and deeply democratic.” She closed on a sentiment that must have been inspired by the towers of Manhattan: “Let’s treat this beautiful movement as if it is the most important thing in the world. Because it is. It really is.”
All this is indisputably entertaining but it’s not smart politics. And the sooner the adult in the White House and his ancient political machine—the Democratic Party—addresses that fact, the better their chances of not being humiliated in next year’s election.
America’s boisterous public square can be frustrating for political strategists. Spontaneous, anarchic sound-bites can out-shine mainstream politicians and can drown out the subtle, careful utterances of elected politicians. Still, genuine democrats can’t hesitate to defend the right to protest in unorthodox, peaceful ways. The suggestion by Herman Cain that these people are “un-American” shouldn’t go unchallenged. A great democracy doesn’t have a dress code or fixed set of beliefs.
Nevertheless, activists who elected Obama and decades earlier, campaigned for Gene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy George McGovern and Bill Clinton adopted a vision of America and a vision of American politics that are very different from those expressed by Naomi Klein. They understood that just saying that you speak for the people is easier than bothering to win democratic elections. But they knew that elections allow for real change.
When they won elections, they compromised; they pursued a higher standard not just a “better” standard of living for Americans. They were all market democrats and insisted they could better manage a capitalist society than their more ideological opponents. And when they lost, the new age politics of Ms. Klein accomplished nothing.
After the wondrous summer of 1967, tens of thousands of young people settled down and “got clean for Gene.” They entered mainstream democratic politics with a vengeance, driving a war president from office. Conversely, the darlings of the media then, the counter-culture that shunned the old politics, produced nothing of lasting consequence except alarming film footage of social disorder that helped elect Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.