Occupy Wall Street: Facts and fictions

Justin Paulette Fellow, Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs
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“Occupy Wall Street” has captured global attention and become the darling of the world press. CNN hosts a “Meet the 99%” Web page advertising the movement on CNN.com. MSNBC’s praise of OWS has approached religious awe. Yet for all the attention, many assertions about the movement are flatly inaccurate.

Global Span. Claims that OWS has spread to countries around the world — that is, Europe — fail to recall that circuses of this sort have been common in Europe for years. The OWS brand of demonstrator belongs to a quasi-professional cadre of anti-everything crusaders who follow protests like a Grateful Dead tour. Euro-protesters launch copy-cat OWS rallies because that’s what they do — they follow protests, not issues. Euro-protests have now reached America, not vice versa.

Global Importance. As permanent protest fixtures in their respective countries, OWS demonstrators give a false impression of the movement’s relevance. They attend rallies with the same frequency and sense of obligation as other people attend church — and like many churchgoers, they don’t know the weekly Gospel until they show up. But by hoisting a few hastily scribbled “OCCUPY” posters, they have earned unprecedented media coverage. Yet 99% of the population thinks OWS is simply an unfocused demonstration against wealth, government and savvy business strategy by angry people who think they don’t have enough wealth, government and savvy business strategy.

Historic Movement. Successful movements evidence structural, ideological and procedural qualities which lead to demonstrable results. The Tea Party and Arab Spring protests began as leaderless, grassroots movement akin to OWS, but quickly organized into relatively structured political systems with clear ideological agendas translating into concrete, practical goals. The civil rights movement enjoyed powerful leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., leaders who preached a timeless ideology in the context of measured social progress. OWS lacks the organized leadership, lucid principles or tactical resolve capable of transforming spectacle into success. As their dwindling ranks at vacant tent cities are likely to be swept away with the first chilly winter winds, OWS is poised to join the World Congress of Esperanto in the archives of widely publicized but ultimately futile revolutions.

Effectiveness. Protesters have too much pride in their ability to find fault in others. Criticizing wrongs is easy; finding solutions is hard. The mature work of proposing solutions rewarded the Tea Party with electoral victories, prominence in a political party and influence over the congressional process. The resolution of the Arab Spring has resulted in regime changes. And MLK achieved not only legislative but cultural reform throughout America. OWS’s only success thus far has been to litter in public and divert traffic.

Of course, some media accounts have been accurate.

Direct Democracy. Commentators report that OWS presents an alternative to established republican government and reacquaints Americans with a strain of direct democracy. This is true, but confuses virtue and vice. OWS looks like direct democracy because it is disorganized, leaderless, inefficient, susceptible to demagoguery, overly influenced by passions and incapable of articulating a coherent philosophy or forming a consistent governing policy. These are precisely the reasons the Founding Fathers prudently rejected direct democracy in favor of representative government.

Diversity. Beyond the usual parameters of diversity promoted by the media (i.e., race, gender, sexual orientation and other qualities of birth), OWS reflects a great deal of ideological diversity. Conservatism isn’t likely among those ideologies, but there is plenty of room for anarchism, Marxism, communism, socialism, liberalism, progressivism, relativism, feminism, environmentalism, anti-Semitism and a dozen other –ism’s which defy easy classification. These inconsistent, unpopular and impractical — though diverse — philosophies are the main impediment to the formulation of a common theme and rational list of demands by the protesters.

Independence. Although few conservative Republicans will be found among the OWS ranks, the group is not an astro-turf front for the Democratic Party. For the most part, the OWS core is too anarchist and progressive to label themselves as conforming to a political institution. This is precisely the reason that Democrats, from Obama downward, have expressed sympathies and tacit approval for OWS. They hope their entreaties will win over the OWS vote. That OWS’s endorsement is sought by Democrats is a pregnant commentary on both groups.

For any chance of success, OWS must eschew its political independence, scattered ideology and hostility toward political procedures in order to adopt principled policy foundations which may be implemented by the Democratic Party. That is, OWS needs to change everything that has been truly reported about it in order to legitimize everything that has been false reported about it.

Justin Paulette is an attorney and professor in international and constitutional law. He is a fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs and covers politics at No Left Turns.