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What Occupy Wall Street stands for

By Elvin Lim


To understand the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is helpful to understand that it is the antithesis of the Tea Party movement, though for now, much smaller in scale. Occupy Wall Street protesters are, like the Tea Party protesters, disenchanted at the state of the economy, and impatient for solutions. But unlike their compatriots on the Right, their animus is directed at corporate America (Wall Street), not at government (Washington, DC).

Why is Occupy Wall Street more disorganized and rowdy, lacking a message as coherent as the Tea Party’s? Because the American Left has always been a messy, rowdy bunch. Pluralism is inclusive, but it suffers also from having too many voices under the same tent. Yet one thing is clear, while Occupy Wall Street protesters are calling for government reform, they still believe in government. Indeed, they want a government that will stand up to the corporations. And this is why leaders on the Right, such as Newt Gingrich and Eric Cantor, are calling the protests a form of “class warfare” and are wary of the “mob.” (Incidentally, this frame of chaos and disorder, if it spreads, is only going to push independents in Iowa and Florida toward Mitt Romney, assuming NH is in the bag.)

President Barack Obama may be able to catch some wind from this leftist anger, but he has been prudently tentative. Protests – whether on the Left of the Right – are evidence of disenchantment with existing governing institutions. Even though the Tea Party movement helped sweep many Republicans into the House last year, it ought to be remembered that they kicked about as many out. For all the talk of their influence, Mitt Romney remains the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, without the Tea Party’s blessings. On the Left, the Occupy Wall Street movement would be even more difficult to harness. The protesters are, after all, protesting in spite of the fact that their representatives control two of the three elected branches of the government. While it will certainly give Obama some bargaining room to argue for taxing millionaires to pay for his jobs bill, the movement is also evidence of frustrations boiling over – a condition that is not conducive for governance.

People go to the streets when institutions fail. There is a sense that American governmental institutions are no longer up to the task of delivering on the American Dream. The separation of powers, the Senate filibuster, government by committee (and super-committee), the permanent campaign, and bickering political parties may be democracy in action, but it no longer appears to be governance in action. What the Tea Party movement, and Occupy Wall Street, jointly, call for, is an overall appraisal and re-synthesis of all these moving parts, so that faith in our institutions may be restored. The politicians can begin by starting to agree on something, for there is a lot more anger from where either movement came from.

Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.

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