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Why Liberals Need Occupy Wall Street, and Vice-Versa

This article is a contribution to ‘Liberalism and Occupy Wall Street,’ A TNR Symposium. Click here to read other contributions to the series.

It was the spring of 1968 and the Columbia University campus was in revolt. “You must come right up, Dwight!” F.W. Dupee, a Columbia professor and one of the original Partisan Review editors, beseeched Dwight Macdonald. “It’s a revolution! You may never get another chance to see one.”

Macdonald raced uptown. “He was right,” the critic said of Dupee, delighting in the “atmosphere of exhilaration, excitement” they found at Columbia, where “communards” made decisions through a deliberative, democratic process. Here were hopeful signs, thought Dupee and Macdonald, a new generation productively channeling its radical energies.

I don’t think that Occupy Wall Street represents the coming revolution any more than did Columbia ’68—which, of course, ended disastrously, with university president Grayson Kirk calling in the cops to bust heads. But having visited Zuccotti Park, having shared drinks with a handful of its (self-identified) instigators, having found myself drawn to reading compulsively about the plans and politics of the movement (if this heterogeneous outburst can be even labeled with a singular noun), I plead guilty to a frisson of the excitement Dupee and Macdonald felt more than four decades ago. At a time of quiet despair about the failure to reform the catastrophic pro-business policies of the Bush years, this spontaneous outpouring of mass support—sustained day after day, spreading from city to city—offers a sense of hope that can hardly fail to inspire.

Now, it is a hallmark of the hardheaded brand of liberalism that The New Republic rightly cherishes that such enthusiasms be met with scrupulous skepticism. Cold water runs freely at the magazine’s offices. Amen. The magazine’s party-pooping editorial about Occupy Wall Street at least has the virtue of questioning the spreading delirium that unfortunately resembles nothing so much as the Obamamania of 2008, to which embarrassingly large numbers of hardheaded liberals happily succumbed. It’s worth recalling, too, that in 1968, among the New York Intellectuals, Macdonald and Dupee were challenged not only by the incipient neoconservatives Sidney Hook and Irving Kristol; left-liberal stalwarts like Irving Howe and Diana Trilling also found more grounds for concern than celebration when SDS’s Mark Rudd told Grayson Kirk, “We will destroy your world, your corporation, your university.” Suspicion about extremist tendencies in Occupy Wall Street should not be the exclusive property of the right.

But if the spark of excitement that Occupy Wall Street ignites should be contained before it spreads into a mania, neither should it be stamped out in fear. It should be fanned skillfully and judiciously, its flames controlled, its energy harnessed toward goals that leftists and liberals—and indeed most Americans—can endorse.

Yes, there is reason to wince at the ideology emanating from some quarters (though, we should stress, only some) of Occupy Wall Street. Yes, there is something excruciating about watching the “human mike” in action—and even one of the twenty-something activists I drank with the other night attacked that ritual as part of “the fetishization of process” and a promoter of “Stalinist groupthink” because it made people repeat words before knowing what they were going to be saying. Myself, I find it rather less threatening than all that, evoking above all the balcony scene from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” (“You’re all individuals!” “Yes, we’re all individuals!” “You’re all different!” “Yes, we’re all different.”)

But this is silly stuff. The main and perhaps obvious point is that the protesters are doing something very right and very important. They have gotten the nation to focus on the costs and injustice of inequality, on the need for financial regulation, on the problem of job creation, and on other urgent concerns that, but for a brief spell in late 2008 and early 2009, Washington has largely avoided addressing. They’ve rekindled a feeling of hope, and created a sense of political possibility. Most important, they’ve begun to put pressure on our political leaders, including President Obama, who as Ron Suskind’s devastating Confidence Men confirms, has been far too timid in challenging the banks and financial firms. All of this liberals should applaud.

Liberals and the left have had a troubled relationship in American history, as often pitted in opposition as yoked in alliance. Liberals deserve credit for those occasions when they’ve repudiated radical cadres that have strayed from humane values—rejecting Communists who sought to co-opt labor unions, renouncing the violence of the late-1960s New Left. But each period of progressive change in the last century—the Progressive Era, the New Deal, the New Frontier and Great Society—gained energy and power from a left-liberal coalition. The radicalism of the anarchists was not reason to spurn the liberals’ push for regulatory government at the turn of the last century; the anti-capitalism of the communists did not lead New Deal liberals to forget that their immediate adversaries were the protectors of privilege; the fringe sympathizers with the North Vietnamese hoisting NLF flags did not stop the mainstream, middle-class Moratorium movement of 1969 from mounting an anti-Vietnam War protest of unprecedented size. Shared enthusiasms and common goals have overcome, if provisionally, persistent tensions and conflicts.

If this history should make liberals see that the reasonable left can and should be a partner in achieving reform, it should also help today’s radicals see some important patterns. I am not bothered that Occupy Wall Street hasn’t  presented any concrete list of demands; their concerns are self-evident enough, and besides, the protesters who flock under their banner are too heterogeneous and too diffuse to be expected to speak with one voice (human microphones notwithstanding). What they do need, however, is politics—without which radical reform efforts have almost always run aground.

More troubling to me than the anti-capitalist cant I hear from the movement is the contempt for politics and the two-party system. History again: Radicals have traditionally fared best when they’ve worked within the Democratic party, not against it—keeping up pressure but not tearing down the organization that has been, for better or worse, the most reliable instrument for liberal change over the last century. Perhaps the protesters can be forgiven for not knowing the history of the ’30s or the ’60s, but none is too young to know the consequences of Ralph Nader’s 2000 campaign.

And so Occupy Wall Street should hold the Democrats’ feet to the fire; it should force Obama to run in 2012 as the tribune of the 99 percent. (Pulling this off will be hard, although running against Mitt Romney will make it much easier.) It would be folly, however, for this burgeoning movement to train its fire chiefly on the party of its potential allies. Tim Geithner is not the only obstacle to reform in Washington. And so I would urge the protesters to find political targets as worthy of occupation as Wall Street itself. Is there a hashtag for Occupy the Republican Debates?

David Greenberg, a contributing editor to The New Republic, teaches history at Rutgers University and is at work on a history of presidents and spin.