The Double-Edged Sword of the Occupy Movement

American dissent at its finest, or a gathering ground for freaks and kooks? How the Occupy movement defies clear categorization.

An interesting debate occurred on Chris Wallace’s Sunday show on the Fox television network the other day. It was between Weekly Standard editor William Kristol and Fox regular Juan Williams. The subject: The Occupy Wall Street movement and its tributaries around the country.

Kristol said this movement was actually “antidemocratic,’’ as manifest in its very name. When you occupy something, he said, you take it over. That’s hardly consonant with American democracy, which is based on a peaceful resolution of disputes and disagreements. Democrats who embraced this movement early, he added, will be sorry because the American people are taking a dim view of this movement. It seems to contain, he implied, an awful lot of freaks and kooks.

Williams begged to differ. This movement, he declared into the TV camera, is in the grand tradition of American dissent and protest, and polls indicate that many Americans—majorities in some instances—embrace some of the central tenets of this movement. It is a protest against Wall Street greed-mongers, he said, and growing income and wealth disparities in the country. And most Americans are just as concerned about those things as the Occupy people.

The interesting thing about this debate is that they are both right—and both wrong. Sorting it out serves as a good starting point for assessing the political significance of this movement.

First, Kristol was wrong to dismiss the movement as something that is merely a political sideshow—and a not very significant one at that. In the history of American politics, street movements of this type are always significant. When was the last time we saw something like this? Answer: The Tea Party, also highly significant politically, as we saw in the 2010 elections. Before that? We have to go back a lot of years to recall something like either the Tea Party or the Occupy movements. Both reflect serious concern about the direction of the country, as polls show the country is indeed seriously concerned about that. When street movements reach the kind of critical mass of the Occupy folks, they are by definition significant. Otherwise, they wouldn’t exist.

So chalk one up for Williams.

But Williams was wrong in not seeing the dark underside of this particular street movement, with the ongoing threat of violence; the insistence in claiming squatters’ rights in public parks, with all of the problems of safety and sanitation that entails; and the peculiar and threatening nature of the rhetoric that emanates from much of this movement. The polls may show that many Americans share the general concerns of Occupiers, but that doesn’t mean the Occupiers will emerge as a politically potent movement in next year’s elections.

So chalk one up for Kristol.

But consider this: The single most significant aspect of this movement is its hostility toward Wall Street, just as the single most significant aspect of the Tea Party movement was its hostility to expansive government. Put them together, and you have a powerful political impulse, particularly given the extent to which expansive government and Wall Street have been for years interlocked in a corrupt and unseemly embrace.

What this suggests is that the American people are trying to get the country’s political class to take action against a perceived fundamental rot at the foundation of our political system. The political class, it seems reasonable to say, is not in large measure made up of people who are good listeners. So this kind of street agitation is likely to continue and increase. Clearly it won’t fade away.

What does this mean for President Obama? It seems clear he has embraced the Juan Williams perception of the Occupy movement—that it reflects serious political sentiments that can be exploited in the coming election.

But there are two problems here. First, while Obama has railed against Wall Street and millionaires and billionaires and rich corporate executives, he has not done anything serious about whatever problem they represent in civic terms. He signed the Dodd-Frank Bill designed to get control over financial and securities institutions, but that really did nothing to bring these huge entities to heel. Instead, it merely expanded busybody government entities so they could meddle more fearsomely in the inner workings of the huge banks and brokerage houses.

That’s the wrong way to go. When the Glass-Steagall legislation was enacted in the FDR years to curb potential abuses by banks and investment firms, it didn’t extend its fingers into every aspect of those enterprises. It merely laid out demarcation lines between commercial banks, investment banks and investment companies in order to protect ordinary Americans from runaway financial giants that inevitably would become too big to control—and too big to fail. The 1933 legislation ran to thirty-seven pages. Dodd-Frank ran to 2,300 pages, and it didn’t even try to address the too-big-to-fail problem.

Thus do we see how expansive government becomes more expansive, while Wall Street rumbles along, beset by nettlesome bureaucrats, yes, but still getting bigger and richer—and more out of control—all the time.

No wonder there is an Occupier movement. And no wonder it isn’t looking to Obama for solace.