In Florida this week, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was asked about the growing Occupy Wall Street movement. “I think it’s dangerous, this class warfare,” he said.
Romney’s right. It may be dangerous -- to his chances of being elected.
Occupy Wall Street, now almost three weeks old, isn’t like the anti-globalization demonstrations that disrupted summits in the 1990s or even the street actions at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, though some of the same characters are probably in attendance. With unemployed young protesters planning to camp out all winter in Zuccotti Park (with bathrooms available only at a nearby McDonald’s), it’s more like a cross between a Hooverville and Woodstock -- the middle-class jobless of the 1930s and the hippie protesters of the 1960s.
With the help of unions and social networking, the movement has at least some chance of re-energizing Democrats in 2012 and pushing back against the phenomenal progress Republicans have made in suppressing voter turnout in several states.
Why? Because the tectonic plates of U.S. politics are shifting in ways we don’t yet fully understand. We don’t know whether Occupy Wall Street is a carnival party -- a piece of left-wing street theater that gets old fast -- or a nascent political party that revives a long-dormant tradition of class-based politics.
It’s possible that these demonstrations, which have now spread to about 150 cities and campuses, will be hijacked by extremists or dissipated by obnoxiousness; the American left has practice in committing suicide. The whole thing could fade as young people find a better way of hanging out offline.
But my visits to Zuccotti Park made me think it’s the beginning of something consequential. So far it looks like a younger, lefty version of the early days of the Tea Party -- a leaderless, mostly organic movement with a catchy symbolic name that captures the public imagination by channeling anger against elites.
Like the Tea Party on the Republican side, Occupy Wall Street makes the party establishment nervous. It’s not just that Democratic candidates have done well fundraising on Wall Street in recent years. The bigger problem is getting the activists to draw a distinction between bringing specific greedheads to justice and mocking those parts of Wall Street that are blameless in the 2008 crash and do plenty to invest in the future of the country.
But a healthy rebalancing of the national conversation is nonetheless under way. The Tea Party directed public anger against the federal government in general and President Barack Obama in particular; Occupy Wall Street directs that ire against Wall Street in general and -- inevitably -- Romney in particular.
This will have no effect on Romney in the Republican primaries, of course, but in a general election it could make him the poster boy of the big banks that many see as the cause of their woes. The specifics of his record running Bain Capital LLC will be subsumed in the image of his rationalizing the actions (resisting any tax increases) of the “1 percenters.”
The arguments I heard from the often-articulate protesters in the park were economic, not partisan. None of the posters depicted Romney, House Speaker John Boehner or any other Republicans. Instead they said things like “Top 1% Want Everything,” “Listen to the Drumming of the 99% Revolution,” “Stop Off-Shore Tax Evasion,” and “Protect Medicare, Not Billionaires.”
It’s easy to denigrate the movement for simplistic sentiments that lack a clear agenda. But as the Tea Party demonstrations showed in 2009, that very shapelessness is a huge asset (to use the Wall Street term). If “We’re the 99 percenters” catches on, and the crazies can be marginalized, then the challenge will be to move from the streets to the ballot box, as the Tea Party did in 2010.
Voting Barriers Multiply
Lack of enthusiasm for Obama would be one problem. But the young people brought into activism by Occupy Wall Street may face other impediments. Today’s Republican Party is not just anti-Democratic but anti-democratic. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University just released a disturbing report showing that changes in state laws could make it much harder for more than 5 million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012. Some states are putting barriers in the way of early voting and student voting, both of which are used heavily by the liberal base.
The most appalling laws make it almost impossible to vote without a driver’s license, which 11 percent of U.S. adults don’t have. College ID cards are not an acceptable substitute in several states. Texas Governor Rick Perry recently signed a bill saying you can vote with a concealed-handgun permit but not with identification from the University of Texas.
It isn’t hard to see what Republican-controlled legislatures are trying to do. They want to make sure that the kind of free-floating anger expressed by Occupy Wall Street doesn’t end up helping Obama’s reelection. The claim that the purpose of the new election laws is to prevent voter fraud is itself a fraud, given that there’s no widespread evidence of ballots cast under assumed identities.
To make something lasting of this movement, the left must move from legitimate moral outrage to a disciplined approach for electing candidates who want to make Wall Street more answerable for the mess we’re in. Even as they’re outspent by the Koch brothers and their corporate ilk, the 99 percenters will make 2012 a helluva lot more compelling.
(Jonathan Alter, a Bloomberg View columnist, is the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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