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This suggests another challenge for the Occupy Wall Street campaign. Most successful populist movements in recent years have positioned themselves against the party in power. That was true of the Internet “Netroots” who harnessed left-wing ire at President Bush to propel Howard Dean’s insurgent rise through the Democratic primaries. It remains true of the Tea Party, which has capitalized on widespread discontent with the Obama administration. Occupy Wall Street, on the other hand, has the difficult task of mobilizing left-wing opposition against a sitting left-wing president. That challenge is made all the more difficult because the disgruntled twenty-somethings who populate its ranks have a poor track record of heeding their own appeals for more “participatory democracy” by actually participating in it and voting. By contrast, as the results of the 2010 midterm elections showed, the Tea Party’s supporters show up to vote as well as to rally.
Compensating for none of these drawbacks is the fact that Occupy Wall Street’s agenda, insofar as it has one, is actually quite extreme. For all the protestors’ insistence that they represent the “99 percent” of Americans, the signs carried at this weekend’s protests tell a different story. “Abolish capitalism” was a typical one. Protestors were quoted as saying that “if Wall Street actually shuts down, we’ll be happy about it.” That may well be true, but given that Wall Street and the financial industry remain the country’s economic engine, such sentiments are unlikely to find broad purchase. Americans may be repulsed by crony capitalism, but they aren’t ready to ditch the system as a whole.
Ultimately, the main reason the Occupy Wall Street campaign will fail is that it is not about Wall Street at all. Read through the moving testimonials of the self-styled “99 percent” on the campaign’s website and you find that they are mainly young people concerned about getting by in tough economic times – paying their student loans, paying the rent, finding employment and their way in life. One woman notes, “I am young. I am educated and hard working. I am not able to pay my bills. I am afraid of what the future holds.” That anxiety is perfectly natural and understandable. It’s also the reason that this campaign will not get far. At the end of the day, the thing the protestors really seem to want from Wall Street is a job.
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