One Year Later, The Failure Of Occupy Wall Street Is Apparent
The Occupy movement began one year ago today. It's no surprise that it ended up being a failure.
It was one year ago today that a group of protesters ended a march by setting up camp in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park and the Occupy movement was born. This original group of protesters would be mimicked by groups in other cities across the United States, but it was always Occupy Wall Street that was the focus of the media attention that the movement received. What exactly these people were protesting about was never quite clear, largely because they never wanted to agree on an agenda or have any real impact on politics or government. With their drum circles, bizarre hand signals to b used during “debates,” and the clear influence of a counter-culture that average Americans had absoultely no familiarity with, they seemed to revel in their strangeness. Indeed, in Denver the local Occupy group took itself so unseriously that it named a dog called Shelby as their movement’s official spokesperson (spokescanine?). The Zuccotti Park occupation essentially came to an end in November when the NYPD finally put an end to their practice of overnight camping and, as winter fell, the movement itself faded from the spotlight. There were some demonstrations in the spring, but noting near what we had seen last September and, outside of a few diehard hangers-on, the movement appears to be largely dead just one year after it began.
Late last week, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera tried to diagnose the cause of the movement’s fall:
Sept. 17, 2011, was the date Occupy Wall Street took over Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, which soon led to similar actions in cities across the country. The movement’s primary issue was income inequality — “We are the 99 percent,” they used to chant. Reporters swarmed into the park, interviewing Occupy protesters and speculating on whether Occupy had the potential to be a lasting force. “Can Occupy Wall Street Become the Liberal Tea Party?” asked The American Prospect magazine.
A year later, we know the answer: It can’t, and it isn’t. For all intents and purposes, the Occupy movement is dead, even as the Tea Party lives on. But why?
One reason, it seems to me, is that the Occupy protesters were purposely — even proudly — rudderless, eschewing leadership in favor of broad, and thus vague, consensus. It’s hard to get anything done without leaders. A second is that while they had plenty of grievances, aimed mainly at the “oppressive” power of corporations, the Occupy protesters never got beyond their own slogans.
But the main reason is that, ultimately, Occupy Wall Street simply would not engage with the larger world. Believing that both politicians and corporations were corrupt, it declined to dirty its hands by talking to anyone in power. The takeover of the park — especially as the police threatened to force the protesters out — became an end in itself rather than the means to something larger. Occupy was an insular movement, whose members spoke mainly to each other.
The Tea Party did just the opposite. It, too, believed that politicians were venal, but rather than turning away from politics, its adherents worked to elect politicians who believed in the same things they did. Yes, the Tea Party had wealthy benefactors, but their money would not have succeeded without enormous grass-roots support. Two years ago, 87 new Tea Party-elected candidates showed up in Washington. Much as you or I may not like it, they have largely succeeded throwing sand in the wheels of government. That was their goal.
Nocera largely gets it right here. Leaving aside the merits of the OWS agenda, although as I noted back in October, that agenda was largely incoherent, the movement simply didn’t do anything to try to get advance its ideas in mainstream American, or to push the political agenda in a direction that they wanted it to go. Indeed, the movement at times seemed to revel in the idea that it was anything but mainstream, engaging in some of the kind of “shock” tactics that the social movements of the late 60s did. Of course, that movement reached its nadir at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, and suffered its political defeat in the George McGovern campaign of 1972. What the two movements have in common is that they both seemed to be more interested in shocking society than actually changing anything. Indeed, Occupy Wall Street explicitly rejected the idea of engaging in politics and apparently believed that the change they advocated would come about simply be playing the drums while occupying a park in Lower Manhattan. It’s no real mystery that the whole thing turned out to be a failure.
Back in October, I made this observation:
[I]t strikes me that a lack of unity beyond some generalized sense of anger and economic uncertainty is nowhere near enough for the creation of a movement that has a shot of having an impact on political discourse in this country. The Tea Party ultimately succeeded, I would submit, largely because it quickly became focused on a limited number of issues and limited goals. Primarily, of course, there was the debate over health care reform that started at nearly the same time that the Tea Party protests themselves were beginning. During the summer of 2009, that led to many highly contentious constituent town halls where opponents made their voices known, as well as protests of one kind or another in various parts of the country. Add into that mix the fact that the economy was not improving and that the stimulus package passed in February 2009 was not appearing to have any real impact on the economy, and you’ve got a perfect political storm in many respects. Had these factors not been present, it’s possible that the Tea Party would’ve fizzled out or remained too divided on what the “important issues” were to have any real impact on politics.
The “Occupy” movement faces the same problem, it seems. Remaining unfocused and appealing to the public’s general disdain with the political system, something which Americans of all ideological stripes seem to share at the moment, can only last for so long. At some point, the movement either has to focus on clear goals, or it will end up fading away into something similar to the anti-globalization and anti-war protests we used to see during the Bush Administration, both of which were dominated by groups on the far left of American politics.
Quite obviously, that’s exactly what has happened. By eschewing politics and choosing to largely forgo any effort to appeal to mainstream America, the OWS movement essentially doomed itself to failure. Catchy slogans and signs are all well and good, but at the end of the day a protest is a waste of time unless there’s some kind of followup, and OWS never had any kind of followup. Partly, I think, that’s because they really had no idea what they wanted to achieve, or how to achieve it, and they largely rejected the efforts of politicians from either side of the aisle, including at one point then Republican candidate for President Gary Johnson. At some point, even MSNBC, which had been blatantly cheering for the movement from the start on nearly every program on its network, gave up on what had clearly become just a hodgepodge of grievances put forward by a bunch of people who had apparently decided that camping out in a park was now a Constitutional right and an end in itself. When the movement turned violent in cities such as Oakland and Portland, any chance they had of being taken seriously by mainstream America was over.
Some will argue that the Occupy movement did succeed in bringing attention to the issue of income inequality and “tax fairness,” but I’m not sure that’s even true. In and of itself, income inequality has not been an issue in the political campaign and is unlikely to become one, and the issue of raising taxes on high income earners is one that has been a Democratic advantage for years now. The goalposts haven’t really moved on those issues because of Occupy and, in all honestly, the movement wasn’t saying anything new about either of them anyway. Besides, those issues only became a topic of discussion when they started to be used by political leaders, the same political leaders that the Occupy movement shunned. In both of those cases, the movement just happened to be on the political advantageous side of an issue.
Nocera was right to compare Occupy to the Tea Party, because Occupy’s own history shows why it failed and the Tea Party succeeded:
The Tea Party succeeded because it focused limited issues and limited goals, and because it worked within the system rather than merely standing outside it yelling clever slogans. It’s not easy, it’s not always necessarily fun (sitting in a campaign office stuffing envelopes can be pretty darn boring, you know), but it’s how things work in this country. If you don’t even try to get involved any change things, then your complaints just end up being so much noise in the background.
And, after awhile, people just tend to tune out the background noise.
Look at the political conversation in 2010 and in 2012. It’s a different landscape. Of course, part of that was that none of the serious people foresaw that stupidity of the debt ceiling crisis, but the conversation certainly changed. And it was Occupy that did that.
They defeated 1%er Mitt Romney, what more do you want?
If you look at the polls suggesting that Americans favor taxing the rich while Americans do not favor cutting back on social services, I’m not sure how one can come to the conclusion that the Tea Party movement has been more successful than the Occupy movement.
And if the only reason that the TP movement can claim better success is because they have more politicians willing to adopt the banner, that does not necessarily mean that they are indeed more successful.
History will judge.
The polls have been that way for years, long before OWS ever existed.
@Doug Mataconis: So you’re suggesting that OWS was unnecessary while the Tea Party was futile?
I, for one, am not surprised that a movement dedicated to doing nothing (sitting in parks, holding signs, occupying space) has accomplished…..precisely nothing.
And I say that as someone who is sympathetic to “the cause.”
I’m all for giving credit where credit is due.
But giving OWS credit for defeating Romney is not only premature, it’s undeserved.
You can’t fail if you have no goals to begin with. As to the TP, their focus was, and remains on, the president and anyone associated with him. OWS could only sorta, kinda, focus on Wall Street, whatever that may be.
They changed the framing. That’s what I wanted them to do. They redefined the country to an extent as the 1% vs. the 99%. They only failed if you were expecting them to launch a revolution.
They changed my attitude, they changed a lot of people’s attitudes. And you saw it at the DNC where Democrats who had been cowering earlier launched a full-throated defense of progressive taxation and Obamacare.
If you don’t think some of the voter skepticism and resistance to rich trust fund baby Mitt Romney is a product of OWS, I think you’re kidding yourself. If you don’t think OWS stiffened Democrat spines, you are likewise mistaken.
As for the Tea Party, you’ll notice it’s the Democrats willing to talk about the future while the Republicans desperately try to conceal their plans from the voters.
The only reason the Tea Party “accomplished anything” is because they let their movement be completely and totally co-opted and taken over by the social conservative wing of the Republican party. What started out as a movement primarily concerned with deficits and spending, quickly became represented, to a large extent, by the nuttiest of the nutty Rs (Bachmann, O’Donnell, Angle, etc). I wouldn’t necessarily congratulate them for choosing to become powerful be being completely transformed into an organization with totally different goals than when it started.
I think they did accomplish something important, modest though it may be in comparison to whatever lofty goals various occupier types may have had: they changed the conversation. The topic of increasing inequality was brought to the forefront, rather than being something “wonky” types worried about.
Since I’m pleased with that development, I don’t consider Occupy a failure. If I was involved with the movement and hoped for big changes , then I’d likely see it all as a big failure. But then I think setting the bar that high means everything’s a failure.
No clear goals, no articulation, marching in the wrong places, no political program, creating a big mess, antagonizing a lot of people = failure.
I agree with Michael and Rob, it may only be a modest success, but the change in conversation (1% v 99%) means it’s definitely not a failure.
Rome wasn’t built in a year
I’m not sure that the Tea Party ever changed its goals. From the get go there were plenty of people saying that it was more about social conservatism than fiscal once you got past the slogans.
“Failure” would be Romney riding Bain and Cayman Island accounts to victory. Tea Party victory would be a TP candidate leading the race. Neither of those happened.
An Obama lead show neither OWS fail or TP win. Given the range of 1%er issues that the right has yielded in public debate (even toning down Obamacare criticism and letting Obama re-embrace it) it looks like OWS has more win of the two.
The OWS changed the discussion from debt reduction to inequality.
I don’t think that word…failure…means what you think it means.
The Tea party was much better funded, after the 2010 elections the money for the astro turf dried up and the crowds at the rally’s dwindled. OWS was never really out to do anything other then what it did provide a convenience framing for a lose basket of ideas that revolved around income inequality and the notion that the banks specifically and big business generally were the ones responsible for all of the stuff that the tea party blames on government.
What’s remarkable is how much the tea party and OWS agree on, they simply see different perpetrators.
Hey, the GOP takes itself so unseriously that it named Mitt Romney as their party’s official presidential candidate. Both sides do it.
If the TP were “winning” in a non Charlie Sheen sense, they’d be riding “defeat Obamacare” to victory right now.
Please stay on topic. This thread is for discussions of OWS, not the Romney campaign.
Umm, they carried signs. I realize it’s asking a lot, but if you read the signs, what they were protesting about seemed pretty clear.
OWS awakened a populist strain that the Democrats had been all too happy to ignore in the past. Dems have been all too eager to run away from programs that the public loves (like Social Security, Medicare, and others) because they were afraid of being called too liberal.
The frame of discussion has certainly been changed, and it was necessary in reaction to the Tea Party. Without OWS, I doubt you have Elizabeth Warren giving a keynote prime time speech at the convention.
I’m curious, Doug. What would they have needed to achieve to be considered successful in your eyes?
Whereas it’s not at all eccentric to dress up in 18th century clothing and march around with a fife and drum corps.
Bizarre! Weird! Different! Strange scare quotes around the word debate!
Yes, so few Americans have heard of the Sixties, or hippies, or union members, or of assembling peaceably to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
It’s a rather limited world you live in, Doug, isn’t it?
I think one has to be careful when tracing cause and effect. There are a lot of factors contributing to Obama’s current lead; I’m skeptical OWS is one of them, but it’s certainly possible, even if at the margins.
They already rode to victory in 2010. They voted over 30 times in the House to repeal Obamacare. They’ve blocked him from taking credit for any major legislation since. They did what they said they’d do. It remains to be seen how they’ll do this time around – I haven’t watched the races closely to know. By contrast, how many affiliated with OWS are even on the ballot?
If you think OWS failed, then you just don’t understand what it was setting out to do.
OWS made a very clear distinction between what is good for the 1% and what is good for America. And it was big enough to not be ignored (as most protests are)
The screams for Austerity Forever, and balancing the budget at all costs have been muted, and the focus is on jobs. Even the Republicans have switched from criticizing the president’s economic record primarily in terms of the deficit to jobs.
That’s a big change. We’ll see how much of a change when the next budget or debt limit hostage crisis takes place.
Scientists have tested and discovered the source of the OWS.
Of course, the real test would be if the grape was used to reward the far more productive output rather than simple unequal pay for the same task.
Also, as an example of how OWS has changed attitudes, I would point you to this.
Without the successful framing of the differences between what’s good for the 1%, and what’s good for America, I think a lot more people would be buying into the “overburdened job creators” nonsense.
Then you subscribe to Mitt’s kind words for “some parts” of Obamacare on him being dumb, rather than him understanding the mainstream audience?
I think Doug’s been waiting impatiently for a year to write this post 😉
Occupy really did refocus the debate from ” Cut taxes at all costs” and “Cut the deficit at all costs” and “Get rid of Obamacare at all costs” to “Inequality matters” . Prior to OWS, nobody was talking about inequality. Now that’s an important part of the political debate. That may not be a revolution: but that’s progress.
The1% and the 99% are a part of everyday discourse in a way that no Tea Party slogan now is.
How many Tea Party candidates have been elected? The answer is none.
Because there is no Tea Party. It’s just a bunch of folks who happily watched deficits grow and tax cuts during war but got all uppity when the black guy got elected.
I’m not sure what his “kind words for ‘some parts’ of Obamacare” has to do with OWS. Are you suggesting there’s a connection? As I recall, he’s promised to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, so I’m not exactly sure where you’re seeing the OWS effect here.
I think anyway you cut it the TP has had, and continues to have, much more political influence and power than OWS.
BTW, was OWS even mentioned at the Democratic convention? Honest question because I didn’t watch the conventions and avoided most of the coverage.
You know, there’s a tea party caucus in the House. There’s also a progressive caucus. Are we to pretend that members of that progressives caucus aren’t “on the ballot” because they are running as Democrats?
There’s a difference between a political movement and a political party….
As an aside to Doug and Jim, the contextweb.com ads make the OTB website run like a disabled snail.
Here’s hoping they produce significant revenue.
I disable them. If you’re running Firefox or Chrome, there are addons that will prevent them from loading which increases the site load-times substantially.
Yes Andy. Were you aware of the African Great Lakes Caucus? How about the Afterschool Caucus or the Bicameral Congressional Caucus on Parkinson’s Disease?
Get real. The Tea Party is the GOP without early onset Alzheimers.
Link to many more inane caucuses
Sorry, I was on my phone which made for me to quote. Back in the original article Doug wrote:
Which is why I’ve compared and contrasted the two all through these comments.
Above you took my quote:
And talked about them riding to victory in 2010 and etc.
I was trying to say (pecking on my phone) that it isn’t 2010 any more when Mitt speaks well of Obamacare and then has to roll back:
Mitt Romney Muddles His Message on Health Care
Hence, my question.
For what it’s worth, I’m one of those who think Mitt was doing the right thing for the general campaign, because the general public really does like those elements of Obamacare, but tragically it’s part of the GOP dynamic that they won’t let him move.
As I say in another thread, you can’t build a majority movement on minority positions.
More generally, I don’t think OWS foes really had the right to define OWS success. It wasn’t a conventional movement. It had plenty of hippie performance art weirdness. It was about changing the debate and other fuzzy liberal things, that seem to have worked.
@Davebo: Well, I guess if the tea party doesn’t exist, then it has no influence and did nothing to change GoP politics – is that what you’re arguing? No doubt the TP was absorbed by the GoP (or maybe it was the other way around, opinions differ), but it’s a little bizarre to assert that there “is no tea party.” I think establishment GoP politicians who were primary’d by tea party challengers would beg to differ with you.
Well, then, can any of the OWS supporters here concede the damage that it’s done? Insane slogans (sorry, had to rely on Business Insider for that … I wasn’t there). Violence. Complete lack of coherence. No goals. No leadership.
I mean, if I was to start a conspiracy to destroy all credibility of the Economists that are — and have been — warning about Income Inequality for far longer than OWS has been around, that’s how I’d start.
And when people started forgetting how bad OWS was, paying attention to economists that actually talk instead of screaming insanities, well … better get OWS back out there! Otherwise, things might change around here!
Fact: Jobs & the Economy would be the main talking point with or without OWS. Fact: No one needs OWS to tell them that the Economy sucks.
And that’s pretty much all they’re sayin’.
Oh, almost forgot:
“The Economy? It’s been mostly dead all decade …” (with apologies to Mel Brooks).
The Tea Party wasn’t absorbed by the GOP. They were a part of the GOP all long.
As to their influence take a look around at the radical decreases in federal spending and the national debt since they put on their traingled hats and took to the streets with poorly worded signs.
Just because someone who had to convince her district that she wasn’t a witch won the GOP nomination doesn’t mean they’ve had any impact at all.
It was encoded into this word: “fair.” You’ll find that word about 8 times in the speeches by Barack and Michelle. Zero for Mitt and Ann.
This is a key point. A couple of word counts from Mitt’s speech:
For the record, I’m not a foe of the OWS and neither am I a fan of the TP. This is analysis, not advocacy. I guess I’m just looking for something quantifiable. For the TP, that’s pretty easy. For OWS it’s quite difficult. Just to be clear, I’m not saying the OWS had zero influence, but here are two points I would make:
1. OWS influence isn’t remotely close to TP influence.
2. OWS influence is small and indirect and thus it is difficult to distinguish its signal from the usual political noise.
Overall I would say that OWS hasn’t been the game-changer that the TP was. I think OWS started off strong and had a compelling narrative, but it didn’t develop the leadership necessary to take it to the next level.
I have a benign regard for OWS. I was never part of it. I think of it as a happening, with all the pluses and minuses of other such things (Burning Man or South by Southwest).
One of the interesting dynamics though is that the far left elements of OWS did not make it into main stream Democratic politics. And yet the right sees Obama as the most liberal politician in the last 1000 years, or whatever.
I mean, how can the great socialist be ahead in the polls as the socialist troops fail?
Sorry Andy but I’m still looking for the accomplishments the Tea Party has had.
Other than Republicans running alternates to other Republicans (and mostly losing) I just don’t see any.
Perhaps they are closer to OWS than they would like to admit. If you have no real goals you can never fail.
As I say in my overlapping comment, OWS and the TP wanted to be different things. We can’t measure them on the same scale. It’s street art versus proto-party.
That said, I tried to decode their “success” in the winning messages of the 2012 presidential campaign.
Maybe I’m misremembering, but I seem to recall that “fairness” has long been a standard feature of the Democratic party platform.
Well South by Southwest does make it nearly impossible to get a room at the Driscoll or even the Embassy Suites on Congress!
Well, I guess if you won’t recognize the various factions which exist in the GoP, and the history of the TP as one of those factions (to include how it became a factions), and the influence it’s had over time, then there is nothing much for us to discuss, so we’ll have to agree to disagree.
This is a worthwhile observation. The term. “the 1%” has entered the lexicon. I think that that has some significance. Whether that is enough to declare “success” is another matter but there has been some shift in the conversation around wealth distribution in the US that was not happenIng before very recently.
That’s a pretty good distinction, but it also makes it difficult to objectively judge how much OWS influenced US politics.
Good point. That’s a meme which will likely last for some time.
That’s reasonable Andy. But surely you’ll admit that the Tea Parties existence, based on their various stated goals, is around a decade late and curiously timed to the 2008 presidential election.
Just a question for those who say OWS changed the narrative:
How much of that do you think should be attributed to OWS specifically and how much should that be attributed to non-OWS people who share the same goals but different methods?
Example: Elizabeth Warren. She could be sitting at Zucotti right now, passively hoping the cleverness of her sign gets through. But she’s running for Congress, actively giving speeches, talking to people, etc. Passive protest versus active engagement?
To me, there’s no contest.
OWS argued that Big Business/the 1%ers had bought our government for their purposes. Getting affiliates with OWS elected to office would not be a goal for a movement that is stating the government is fundamentally broken, would it?
The Tea Party rode to victory promising job creation, not just obstruction of Obama. I don’t think the claim they did what they said they’d do holds water.
@Herb: Progress requires both protest and active engagement, I think.
Protest is needed to define the terms – politicians tend to go where the culture says they should. Active engagement comes into play once there is some consensus on the direction to take.
Think about the same-sex marriage movement. It took years of protest before politicians started to brave those waters.
Occupy was never going to succeed in Doug’s view. I never really understood it, but Doug seemed to take the whole thing very personally and had some sort of visceral reaction to them that defied explanation. Given the intensity of his dislike, one suspects that nothing short of a sacking of the entire government, president, all of congress, all of the Supreme Court, not to mention governors and state legislatures, and replacing them with drum circles and spokescanines would have been labeled a “success” by his standards.
Occupy changed the media narrative in a way that nothing else seemed to do. You can have the Krugmans and Warrens and other politicians and pundits from the left pointing out that people need government services, and the media will ignore it. But a bunch of young people form a drum circle and sleep in the park, and suddenly the media starts writing stories about how important people who aren’t billionaires are and how government policy seems to be impacting their lives.
Why would you frame it that way? Warren had a pre-existing set of ideas that matched those of OWS and helped her advance. If there were no OWS would she be a candidate? Such things are indecipherable simply because OWS (and the TP) were part of broader narratives.
You have to remember, Doug is a libertarian and libertarians totally oppose the view that inequality is a problem and that government should pursue redistribution policies. For him, OWS is pretty much next to Communism and must be discredited.
AND OWS WINS THE GAME!
Occurrences of the word “fair” in Obama’s big speech:
2012: 5 (omitting “science fair”)
Every word in these speeches is chosen carefully, so I think the numbers mean something.
You think you’re being clever, but there’s actually an important message in that video, and it proves the opposite of what you think it proves.
Money is a positional good; it’s about status in the pack. Our experience of wealth or poverty is highly positional, rather than absolute. This accounts for what is seen in that video.
Robert H. Frank has explained this (link):
You’ve heard of ‘conspicuous consumption,’ right? Like those monkeys in your video, humans are primates, and deeply concerned about status. A lot of consumption, especially among the rich, is purely symbolic, and not utilitarian. If my social status requires me to own 5 or 10 houses that I mostly never use, that is ultimately a form of waste (even though people are employed taking care of those houses; they might as well be employed digging and filling holes).
Also read what Robert Frank says about Darwin and antlers (link). When rich people buy a bunch of extra houses they hardly use, that’s just like those big antlers.
What this also tells us is that big differences in income are not necessary to motivate people to be productive. When those differences are excessive, they just create waste.
Frank has also made this related observation:
Think about why this might be, in light of the video you posted.
Our tax policy is messed up because we don’t understand the evolutionary relationship between sex and money. A certain amount of income (and wealth) inequality is functional, but when it becomes extreme the result is extreme waste, and a society that cannot be competitive.
i think the media just latched onto them to see if they would start something violent, they got bored with the t-party as they all seemed to have jobs and couldn’t party all night and camp out on city streets beating drum and listening to crunchy tunes….. of course the point was moot- life is unfair, get used to it.
Good point. I do think the scales tip to active engagement, though. Protesting too often seems like an end in itself,
Well, Warren’s just an example, not really trying to frame it in a certain way. I think there’s been a lot of people working very hard to accomplish OWS’s goals…and then there’s the protestors, who seem to think righteousness beats hard work.
Speaking of libertarians, exactly how much success have they ever had politically?
Actually they all were waiting for their Social Security checks and couldn’t party all night and camp out on city streets because that would be against their doctors’ orders and the Geritol would only get them so far…
Shorter Mitt Romney: If you don’t pay income taxes how cam my attempts to bribe you with lower taxes work?
Doug’s always been a reflexive hippie puncher.
A big problem with OWS is that we are dealing with a myriad of young people who simply do not know The US Constitution and what real liberty is about.