By David Rohde
The views expressed are his own.
Update: On Dec. 6th, Occupy protesters began a new tactic of rallying around homeowners trying to resist foreclosures in several cities. Read more here and here. The following column was published on Dec. 1st.
The Occupy movement is flirting with irrelevance. While press reports trumpet the movement’s introduction of the phrase “we are the 99 percent” into the political conversation, the group’s largest encampments have been razed. On Wednesday night, Los Angeles and Philadelphia joined New York, Oakland, Detroit and St. Louis in clearing out its protesters. Small demonstrations continue, but the movement now needs to turn catch-phrases into political change.
This week, Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park was a symbol of the movement’s potential dissolution. On Tuesday afternoon, a dozen Occupy Wall Street protesters held a quiet discussion in one corner of the park. In another, a lone office worker sat at a small, marble table and ate his lunch. Christmas lights glistened on trees that once sheltered protesters. Scores of police blocked anyone with a tent from entering the area.
Generating debate and media coverage are significant achievements, but Occupy’s real test is whether it can convince Reagan Democrats — the working class Americans who began voting Republican in the 1980s — to abandon the Gipper’s progeny.
Despite all the talk of the “99 percent,” the Occupy movement remains light years behind the Tea Party in terms of sparking political change. In a remarkably short period, the Tea Party translated intense media coverage of a small, fervent protest movement into real political power. The Tea Party and other factors shifted the Republican party dramatically to the right in 2010.
The question of 2012 is whether Occupy can do the same with the Democrats. Occupy’s lifeline is clear: unions. With their large memberships and deep political war chests, uniting with unions is Occupy’s best chance at producing the change it demands.
The power of unions was clear during this fall’s protests in New York. On a given day, Occupy protests generally attracted several hundred or thousand people, a hodgepodge of students, older liberal activists and the poor. The largest rallies, by far, occurred when organized labor joined in and produced crowds of 20,000 to 30,000.
In recent interviews, Occupy and union representatives praised one another and talked of a conversion of interests. Chris Policano, Public Affairs Director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the country’s largest public employees union and a top funder of Democratic causes, credited Occupy protesters with re-energizing — and potentially unifying — the left.
“Eighteen months ago, the right wingers were getting away with pitting $40,000-a-year folks against each other while protecting the ultra-wealthy,” Policano said in an email. “But Wisconsin and Ohio and Occupy have profoundly changed the narrative, and that’s a major accomplishment we will build upon.”
Yet while Republicans quickly embraced the Tea Party, President Obama and many Democrats have kept Occupy at arm’s length. The President’s caution will come back to haunt him. Whatever the movement’s political liabilities, it articulates the deep frustration of many middle class Americans.
In recent appearances, Obama has tried to tap into that sentiment. In a speech in Scranton, Pennsylvania Wednesday, the president used the term “fight” repeatedly and rhetorically asked of Republicans, “Are you willing to fight as hard for middle-class families as you do for those who are most fortunate?” But his language was tepid compared to that of Occupy activists.
The gap between Obama and the Occupy protesters is about more than rhetoric: it reflects the failure of a pragmatic and effective political movement to emerge from the fractious left. After initially faring well in public opinion polls this fall, the Occupy movement is losing support. A nationwide poll conducted from Nov. 10th to 13th by Public Policy Polling, a Raleigh, N.C. based Democratic polling firm, found that opposition to the group’s goals rose from 36% in October to 45% in November, while support dropped from 35% to 33%.
When asked whether they had a more positive view of the Tea Party or Occupy movements, 43% of those polled chose the Tea Party while 37% favored Occupy. A month ago, the results were roughly the opposite, with a slightly higher number supporting Occupy.
The firm said in its analysis of the results that many Americans still support Occupy on the issues, particularly rising economic inequality in the United States. But controversy over the movement’s tactics has reduced support.
“What the downturn in Occupy Wall Street’s image suggests is that voters are seeing the movement as more about the ‘Occupy’ than the ‘Wall Street,’” the firm said in a statement. “The controversy over the protests is starting to drown out the actual message.”
That dynamic played out last Monday night at the Baruch College campus of the City University of New York. Students bitterly complained after police forcibly ended their protest against proposed tuition hikes, unleashing billy clubs and arresting fifteen.
Using language reminiscent of pre-Reagan America, students defended the concept of a free public university, which CUNY was until the 1970s. Many of them had participated in Occupy Wall Street protests and been energized by it. Educational opportunity was slipping away from middle class Americans, they said. Money, not merit, now ruled the country.
“We see the money in our education,” said Denise Romero, a 19-year-old student who holds down two part-time jobs and an unpaid internship while taking classes full-time. “We see the money in our politics and we’re all against it.”
A few minutes later, a policeman standing nearby dismissed the student protesters and their cause. When a passerby asked him why they were protesting, he derisively said the students “don’t want to pay tuition.”
The Gipper’s hold on working class America remains strong. If the Occupy movement fails to reach out to unions and do a better job defining itself, its moment will pass.