October 2011: Whither Occupy Wall Street?

A tip of the cap to the legendary New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

After more than a month of symbolic protest and heavy media attention, the Occupy Wall Street movement has highlighted global discontent with unbridled capitalism.

The protesters’ catchphrase (“We are the 99%”) has resonated with many American voters and taxpayers angry over growing income inequality, government bailouts of financial services firms, excessive executive compensation and bonuses, and an unregulated, Wild West attitude on Wall Street that many blame for the financial crisis of 2008.

So after raising these issues to the forefront, where now for Occupy?

In the United States, at least, there are three probable paths for this leaderless movement in the near future:

1. OWS fades in importance as it fails to convert its inchoate protest into meaningful action, harsh weather drives off its foot troops “occupying” cold weather cities, and the media loses interest.

There are signs that the Occupy Wall Street movement may have peaked. Sustaining an outdoor protest during the winter months in New York, Boston, and Chicago will be problematic. Reports of criminality at Occupy sites, and stories about conflict with drug-users and the homeless who have gravitated to the protests for free food and shelter, will hurt the OWS image and hamper recruiting efforts.

Even more important: OWS will lose its media coverage over time. As long as city authorities are content to let the protesters camp out in public places there will be no conflict to attract TV cameras and sympathetic journalists. Celebrity visits will evaporate as media attention wanes. In short, OWS will become yesterday’s news story.

By late January it’s quite likely that the Occupy movement will be seen in the same light as, say, the continuing antiwar protests led by Cindy Sheehan outside the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas—deserving of only occasional media attention.

2. OWS acts as the Tea Party of the Left, as President Barack Obama and Democratic Party-affiliated labor unions co-opt its populist themes and ride them to electoral success in 2012.

For this scenario to materialize, several things have to happen. Obama and his political advisers need to conclude that he can win reelection only by embracing OWS rhetoric and running a divisive campaign focused on income inequality and middle class economic insecurity that proposes taxing the rich as the solution. And OWS must moderate its far-Left rhetoric, adopt a more culturally middle class image, avoid violent confrontations, thereby becoming more acceptable in the eyes of independent swing voters.

Will this approach work for Obama and the Democrats? Polls show Americans are sympathetic to the criticisms of the current economic system voiced by OWS. Can Republicans be tied to the mortgage crisis and its connected Wall Street financial skullduggery enough to motivate swing voters in key Electoral College states like Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, New Mexico and Colorado? It’s a risky approach, because this new-found populism may ring false. Obama benefited from significant Wall Street political contributions in 2008 and he has surrounded himself with financial sector figures (Tim Geitner, Larry Summers) as key advisers in the first two years of his administration.

Republicans will seek to make the 2012 election a referendum on Obama’s performance in addressing high unemployment. Will bashing the private sector (the source of employment) as greedy make sense to anxious voters? And what will such a strategy do for moderate Democratic Congressional candidates?

3. OWS becomes increasingly confrontational with violent clashes between protestors and police, causing President Barack Obama and Democrats to distance themselves from a movement perceived as too radical for the mainstream.

Any images of Occupy protesters battling police damage the Occupy brand. OWS is a leaderless movement that seeks to make decisions through consensus. The OWS General Assembly process hasn’t been effective in Oakland, for example, where it appears that hotheads and anarchists triggered the donnybrook with city police.

As OWS members try to figure out what comes next, there will be voices calling for a more aggressive approach. Officials in some cities may feel they have to intervene on health-and-safety grounds and close down the tent camps. Clashing with the authorities is a sure-fire way to attract media attention, but it will make the Occupy movement toxic for Democratic politicians who don’t want to get on the wrong side of the “law-and-order” issue.

The end game

What will happen with the Occupy Wall Street carnival? I’d bet that the first scenario, where the Occupy movement becomes a waning sideshow, is the most likely to occur. I doubt President Obama and the Democrats will risk any backlash from moderates and independents by aligning themselves too closely with the rhetoric of the Occupy protesters. Mayors and city officials paying attention to incidents in Boston and Oakland will avoid using force. They’ll recognize that they are better served by waiting out any occupation of their public spaces rather than trying eviction. The greater involvement of union organizers in the movement should act as a moderating influence as well.

So in the end, I’d hazard the guess that Occupy Wall Street will end with a whimper, not a bang.


Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders
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