Since its inception as an ad campaign sponsored by Adbusters—the Canadian import that brought us T.V. Turnoff Week—Occupy Wall Street has seldom received criticism that it doesn’t deserve. Granted, the endless caviling about its muddled messaging is specious: This ahistorical and irrelevant concern for ideological clarity fails to account for the success of similarly “incoherent” protest movements like the Tea Party and, well, just about every successful protest in recorded history. Likewise, while “Eat the Rich” protest signs ostensibly vindicate Republicans’ class-war phobia, the reality of historically low taxes, unprecedented corporate profits, an ongoing stock market rebound, and a widening chasm between the haves and haves-not renders this paranoia risible.
Nevertheless, the clownish antics of the protesters, with their “Up Twinkles,” “Down Twinkles,” and misguided romanticization of their Vietnam-era countercultural forebears, makes it needlessly difficult to sympathize with them. They have somehow forgotten how the antiwar protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s provoked a counterrevolutionary backlash that begat 40 years of conservative cultural and political hegemony. And by roughing it in Harvard Yard—the epicenter of Ivy League liberalism—the Occupiers have even managed to polarize a community that had been otherwise largely well-disposed toward its cause.
It’s hardly surprising that they have alienated so many of those who agree with them; in my experience, protesters in general tend to be insufferably moralistic, woefully uninformed, frighteningly unhinged, or some unholy synthesis of the three. However, without them there is little standing in the way between democracy and oligarchy; the easily-manipulated voter alone is an insufficient safeguard. Thus, I grudgingly have to admit that, like all protest movements, Occupy Wall Street is a necessary evil. But it is an especially necessary evil in light of present circumstances, for the Occupiers have played and continue to play an additional function—operating as a counterweight to the Tea Party.
Beginning in January 2009, the Republican Party and indeed the nation at large underwent a violent, rightward lurch that stranded former conservatives like Bush speechwriter David J. Frum, Reagan adviser Bruce R. Bartlett, and blogger Andrew M. Sullivan in ideological limbo and pushed respectable, Republican policy innovations like cap and trade and the individual health insurance mandate to the leftmost extreme of the political spectrum. Ideas once considered anathema are now orthodoxy, and those once considered orthodoxy are now anathema.
The party of serial tax-hiker Ronald Reagan now will not raise revenues even in exchange for spending cuts of ten times the magnitude. Reagan once described the consequences of a failure to raise the debt ceiling as “impossible to predict and awesome to contemplate. Denigration of the full faith and credit of the United States would have substantial effects on the domestic financial markets and on the value of the dollar in exchange markets. The Nation can ill afford to allow such a result. The risks, the cost, the disruptions, and the incalculable damage lead me to but one conclusion: the Senate must pass this legislation before the Congress adjourns.” Many in his party now not only doubt the severity of default but also in fact embrace it as an easy way to balance the budget overnight. Capping carbon emissions was a part of the McCain-Palin campaign platform in 2008; climate change is now widely acknowledged to be a hoax. Mitt Romney—who since 2008 has somersaulted his way even further to the right—was not too long ago the conservative alternative to John McCain; he is now the voice of reason and moderation in the race.
Since September, however, things have started to change. We have begun the process of shifting the center back onto more traditional terrain. The Republican Party is demonstrating increasing willingness to come back down to Earth; Republican members of Congress’ Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, for example, have proposed $250 billion in revenue increases and are indicating that they might just be amenable to even more than that. Most encouraging, however, is that the entire national conversation has shifted from the pursuit of ill-advised, short-term austerity to combating rampant income inequality.
What all of this demonstrates is that in at least one very significant respect, we live in a very different country from the one that produced Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority.” The 2010 midterm election proved that today’s America is one in which a foaming-at-the-mouth, populist rabble is fully capable of imposing its electoral will upon the body politic—something that the hippies could never manage. Now, the side that monopolizes the crazy is the side that wins. Thanks to Occupy Wall Street, at least it’s a fair fight.
Dhruv K. Singhal ’12, a former Crimson associate editorial chair, is an English concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.