Given up for dead, the leftist movement born in Zuccotti Park had an unlikely big year—but it’s still not clear how its supporters can turn its energy into permanent wins.
It was five years ago today that hundreds of activists descended on New York City’s Zuccotti Park, 5 blocks from the New York Stock Exchange, to “Occupy Wall Street”— a blunt but effective idea that resonated far wider that their original numbers would ever suggest. The organizers were shrouded in mystery. Their goals were vague. But they sought to emulate the social-media driven protests in Egypt that (briefly) toppled a dictator and, in the words of one organizer “rise up and reform the global economic system.”
The round-the-clock encampment and “general assembly” lasted for two months and gained national attention before being forcibly shut down, but not before sparking a multitude of protests around the world and permanently altering the national dialogue about economic inequality. It’s because of Occupy that today we regularly hear broadsides against “the 1 percent” and critiques about the system rigged for the rich.
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Since then, Occupy as a functioning movement has largely ceased to be. Its mirror-image populist rival, the Tea Party, had a higher arc and more immediate political success, channeling its anti-Wall Street conservatism into enough midterm electoral wins to get a genuine seat at the table in Congress.
But in 2016, to a degree nobody expected, Occupy finally got its moment on the national stage. You could even argue that its heart is now beating more loudly than that of the Tea Party, whose momentum has been gutted by the raw and ideologically impure populism of Donald Trump. This year, Bernie Sanders rode a wave of Occupy energy to do what no self-described socialist had ever done: win more than 20 presidential primary contests and play a major role in shaping a major party platform.
Today, it’s Occupy rather than the Tea Party that can claim some ascendancy: the banner of the Tea Party’s extreme fiscal conservatism is carried by fewer congressional Republicans, who are seen as pesky nuisance by Republican leaders who just want to keep the government open. Meanwhile, the Democratic presidential nominee is leaning on Sanders and his progressive energy in order to keep the party coalition together.
But even in a moment of relative triumph, the movement formerly known as Occupy still faces the challenge it was born with. Its leaders need to do something they, and many millennial activists, appear allergic to doing: build a centralized, top-down, hierarchical organization, and prioritize a few key policy goals. Otherwise their movement stands ready to vanish into the administrative priorities of Hillary Clinton, precisely the kind of candidate they arose to run against.
It was the Tea Party that came first, sparked in decidedly non-populist fashion on February 19, 2009 by a rant on the business TV network CNBC. Government overspending quickly became an organizing principle, solidified during nationwide rallies on Tax Day 2009. In the summer, foot soldiers—arguably directed by the Washington, DC conservative and business-backed organization FreedomWorks—sought to derail Obamacare by angrily confronting congresspeople in town halls. They made a lot of noise, but they failed in their quest to stop Obama from enacting his signature policy goal.
Still, the Tea Party shook up Washington in the midterm elections, dispatching several “Establishment” Republicans in primaries then powering the takeover of the House. The results gave America the feeling that Tea Party fervor—a long, loud complaint about both the financial crisis and the Democrats’ response to it—was sweeping the land. (The fact the three Senate pickup opportunities for Republicans were blown by ideologically extreme Tea Party candidates was often overlooked.)
Then one year later, Occupy showed up. Occupy was less organized and less policy-specific than the Tea Party. It created a “general assembly” on the street, giving the appearance of a movement creating its own government; it railed against Wall Street control of the economy. Like the Tea Party, it never coalesced around a leader; unlike the Tea Party, it never formulated a list of demands, or rallied around actual legislative targets. This was by design. Said one organizer at the time, “making a list of three or four demands would have ended the conversation before it started.”
But what Occupy’s conversation did was give the Tea Party’s narrative of bloated government some genuine competition among anti-establishment populists. The movements had some overlap, particularly in their opposition to the Wall Street bailout. But each was, underneath, firmly rooted in more traditional left-wing and right-wing ideologies. It’s a stretch to say Occupy saved Obama’s re-election—the growing economy deserves the lion’s share of credit—but the manifestation of grassroots passion on both sides of the spectrum kept Democrats from assuming it was necessary to drift rightward to politically survive.
Both the Sanders and Trump campaigns have ties to Occupy and Tea Party activists. Two Occupy alums created the volunteer group “People for Bernie” which popularized the #FeelTheBern rallying cry. And Trump hired Tea Party activist Katrina Pierson as his spokesperson.
But the core of the Trump campaign has nothing to do with the Tea Party’s obsession with overspending and debt. Tea Party Republican congresspeople demanded budgets that were balanced in five years; Trump has no plan to balance the budget. His campaign is populist and anti-establishment, but mainly animated by anti-immigrant sentiment.
The Sanders campaign, on the other hand, was a true reflection of the Occupy spirit. Not only was Sanders laser-focused on curtailing the power of Wall Street and corporate influence in politics, but the underlying premise of the campaign was an upgrade over the original General Assembly in Zuccotti Park: that change would come only through a mass movement of small donors overwhelming the moneyed interests. Every Sanders rally was like Occupy on Tour. There was even a time when the Occupy’s “open mic” rule of the General Assembly seem to be in effect, when Black Lives Matter protests took the stage and Sanders conceded the stage.
Clearly the slow pace of middle-class recovery, juxtaposed with the minimal accountability for the bankers that sunk the economy eight years ago, continued to fuel passions. The anti-corporate fervor wasn’t enough to get Sanders the nomination, or stop Hillary Clinton from scooping up tons of Wall Street cash. But you can still see Occupy’s embers in the Democratic Party platform and in Clinton’s rhetoric.
Big challenges remain for those who want Occupy’s embers to once again become a roaring fire. Clinton’s fervent belief in working within the system and comfortable relationships with Wall Street titans make her an unlikely vehicle for radical change. And the most likely electoral outcome—a Democratic presidency with at least one Republican-controlled house of Congress—does not create the conditions for a radical break with the status quo. Small-bore compromises along with, in the most optimistic of scenarios, breakthroughs on a few pressing issues, will be in the offing. The most that a revitalized Occupy movement can expect to accomplish is to rally enough grassroots pressure to deprive bipartisan proposals with sufficient support from the left to pass. Realizing left-wing goals like breaking up the banks or enacting single-payer health care will remain mere dreams.
Despite its high point this year, the movement is likely to remain hobbled by the strategy that limited it in the first place: its commitment to a decentralized, mostly leaderless vision of activism. That ethos prompted many Bernie Sanders’ aides to quit his Our Revolution organization, on the grounds that the group would be raising fat checks instead of building a bottom-up grassroots movement. It also shapes Black Lives Matter, another movement that has done a better job driving conservation than locking down policy wins. (A Black Lives Matter-related group recently unveiled an ambitious list of 40 policy recommendations, but in going far beyond its original focus on police brutality into areas such as the military budget and slavery reparations, the effort is likely to be too diffuse to secure concrete victories.)
There is a reason why the next president won’t be somebody who did not come out of either the Occupy or Tea Party movements, and it’s not just about money (remember, Sanders outspent Clinton). Winning requires more than starting conversations. It takes realistic goals, robust organization and tenacious follow-through.
Social media makes it easy for passionate, youthful activists to start a movement, but hard to establish leadership, reach consensus on specifics and set priorities. Maybe making a list of three or four demands would have ended the conversation before it started. But once the conversation has begun, you need to take it somewhere. That’s something Occupy was not able to do—and five years later, after hitting an unlikely high-water mark long after those park protests, it’s not at all clear that its veterans believe it is something it needs to do.
Bill Scher is the senior writer at the Campaign for America’s Future, and co-host of the Bloggingheads.tv show “The DMZ” along with the Daily Caller’s Matt Lewis. Follow us: @politico on Twitter | Politico on Facebook