Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Protesters need focus to become relevant

Occupy Wall Street is making the case in New York and a growing number of other cities that income inequality, corporate greed and corruption are destroying the middle class. Most who have moved into the streets are young, educated and mostly white, and they are also angry.

Many thought they were purchasing a bright future with a college education only to face staggering college loans with no prospect of the professions, and paychecks, promised. If they can find a job, they are expected to help fund social programs but are told not to expect full coverage by Social Security or Medicare in their own later years.

Occupy Wall Street is the flip side, at least in these early weeks, of another apparently grassroots representation of citizen anger. Following the historic election of President Barack Obama, a movement made up largely of older, married, white conservative men arose in the heartland of America. Coalesced as the tea party, they parlayed their anger, and significant financing and organizing expertise provided by former Republican Party operatives, into power.

The rise of the tea party has mattered. The tea party knows how to reward its friends and punish its enemies, most of all punishing the moderate Republican elected officials it calls Rinos (Republicans In Name Only). With discipline imposed by the singular focus of defeating President Obama in 2012, this group has moved from the streets through the ballot box to the U.S. House of Representatives.

So far, Occupy Wall Street has no such focus. The movement will have to decide if it really wants to matter or if demonstrating and making demands and living for a while in a made-up ephemeral society, and being noticed as nothing more than an irritant, is enough.

Purity is often an early feature of political movements, especially on the left. When protesting current conditions, people are easily convinced that all politicians, all elected officials, are the same. Caught in the emotion of the streets, they are tempted to believe that it makes no difference who is setting tax policy, no difference who is on the Supreme Court. The truth is there is rarely purity in politics.

The tea party has been successful because self-identified members vote and organize. It will be interesting to see whether Occupy Wall Street is willing to take that step.

Because if they believe that who wins elections, who holds office, makes no difference, the tea party, multinational corporations and the bankers will be happy to see them in the streets and away from the ballot box.

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