As I wrote a while back, grassroots movements are nothing new in American politics. From the Civil Rights movement to the counter-culture movement, all have two things in common: a genuine bone to pick with the established order and a lack of resources with which to sustain the momentum of the cause.
“It is that way with virtually all movements, regardless of ideology. Grand ideas that lead to a rush of enthusiasm that inevitably peter out on their own like a dying dwarf star from a lack of fuel, that is when they’re not being subverted and bought out. Find a cause or movement that hasn’t collapsed of its own weight and you will find a very large stash of Benjamin Franklins bankrolling it.”
The Tea Party movement is an abject lesson in how to subvert a genuinely grassroots cause and turn a nation upside down in the process. Voter angst over how the nation was being run became a national phenomenon, thanks to an awful lot of Benjamin Franklins being thrown around. The efforts – not to mention deep pockets – of the Koch Brothers and Dick Armey’s Freedom Works acted like miracle grow to the simmering tensions that existed deep within a restless electorate. The result was a movement that long ago outgrew any semblance of grassroots identity. It has now become, for all intents and purposes, the driving force of the Republican Party and now dominates the political landscape of the nation.
Despite claims to the contrary, the Right knew full well that the Frankenstein monster they had created was as genuine as a Canadian dollar at a flee-market. But after getting their proverbial butts kicked in two consecutive elections, they took advantage of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and capitalized on an inept and disorganized Democratic Party to write the fairytale of all narratives. It was a brilliant and highly successful strategy that now has them twelve months away from taking both the White House and Senate.
But there was one problem with their master scheme. While peddling their drivel to a gullible electorate, they were never quite able to seize upon a genuine populist theme that could thrive without the aid of all those millions of corporate dollars. Without Fox News and most of the A.M. dial to constantly stir up the pot, the fledgling Astroturf movement would’ve faded months ago, and they know that full well.
What the Right never counted on was that the real rage that existed out there had been untapped, yet quietly simmering away with the venom of a snake looking for an ankle to bite. Whatever else you may want to call the “Occupy Wall Street” movement – and for the record I still don’t know quite what to make of it a month in – know this much: this truly grassroots movement is not phony, nor does it appear to be some left-wing counterpart to the Tea Party. While Labor has lent a helping hand, they are not driving this bus. In deed, this rather diverse and unpredictable movement looks about as organized as a tailgating party before a football game.
But deep within that diverse and disorganized group lies a seething contempt for what has transpired not only on Wall Street and the financial institutions but for the seeming complicity of a Washington political establishment that, as far as they were concerned, cared more for millionaires than for every day working people.
And while I am certainly not going to suggest that programs like TARP and the GM bailout were not necessary – they were, even if the former was poorly managed – I can identify with those who feel as though they were ignored and tossed aside. Washington may have saved the Titanic from sinking but not before an awful lot of passengers got thrown overboard in the icy waters. And it is those very same freezing and dripping wet passengers who have apparently had their own “mad as hell” moment and have decided that “they’re not going to take it anymore.”
This is the populist rage the Democrats couldn’t or wouldn’t tap into when it could’ve been there’s for the taking back in ’09. Maybe they don’t represent the 99% that they purport to, but they sure as hell represent a majority of the population. And, far from petering out, they seem to be spreading like wildfire. From a tiny throng near the World Trade Center they have sprung up in dozens of cities throughout the country and, now, hundreds of cities across the world. These people are tapping into an energy that is as old as dirt and, despite what the Right may be saying about them, their angst appears to be resonating among the general public.
Yes there are flakes and nut jobs among their lot – show me a movement that doesn’t have its fair share of escaped inmates – but, by and large, they have been surprisingly disciplined and well behaved for a group that, as of yet, has failed to come up with a cohesive and defining message. They are as unpredictable as they are committed.
And that’s what the Right fears most about this movement. It’s genuine, growing and, for the moment at least, beyond co-opting. Furthermore, this truly grassroots movement is connecting in a visceral way with independents that even the Tea Party couldn’t and that spells trouble for the people at News Corp. If they can manage to organize themselves around a central theme and stick to it, this could be the biggest phenomenon to hit American politics since the days of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Of course that’s a tall order. There are many stumbling blocks that lie ahead for Occupy Wall Street, not the least of which is the approaching winter, which in New York can be quite brutal. Then there’s this little thing called money. Like it or not, without some kind of funding, it will be almost impossible to sustain the momentum they have gained the last thirty plus days. While contributions are continuing to pour in, it may not be enough. And then there’s staying power. How long will these people hang in when the elements turn harsh and public opinion begins to wane? Say what you will about the Koch brothers, it’s amazing what a few million dollars can do to overcome a host of obstacles and fix a multitude of sins.
But, for the time being, it’s been both fun and encouraging watching this fledgling movement turn an awful lot of heads. While I’m hedging my bets a bit, I’m nonetheless cautiously optimistic about its chances of success. For even if it turns out that Occupy Wall Street ends up going into that long good night, the spark that they have lit may continue to flicker in the hearts and minds of millions of voters. And that is always a good thing, especially with such an important election coming up next year. Besides, any movement that can make the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Rush Limbaugh sweat is OK in my book.