Happy Birthday, Occupy Wall Street

Ten years later, the Democratic Party ignores Occupy Wall Street’s warnings at its own peril.

Occupy Wall Street Protestors March Down New York's Fifth Avenue

Protesters with Occupy Wall Street chant before walking up Fifth Avenue to demonstrate in front of the residence of NewsCorp CEO Rupert Murdoch on Oct. 11, 2011, in New York.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

What should we make of Occupy Wall Street 10 years later? My friend Guido Girgenti put it plainly when I talked with him last week: “There are parts of Occupy I would not want to return to or romanticize.” Don’t misunderstand Guido. He was 19 years old when Occupy exploded onto the scene, and he dove headlong into Occupy Los Angeles and Occupy Colleges. He was, like me, deeply inspired by the movement and thinks it was enormously important.

But it’s also true that the movement’s excesses and shortcomings were not hard to spot — for any casual visitor to Zuccotti Park or most any of the other hundreds of sister occupations that popped off across the U.S. in the fall of 2011. Occupy was scrappy and wholly authentic — a beautiful mess. As a defiant stand against the status quo, it attracted participants who were deeply alienated from that status quo, and that often presented its own set of problems. Occupy’s celebrated hyperdemocratic decision-making processes, while electrifying, were in the end so dysfunctional that much of the real decision-making moved into informal and unacknowledged power centers. If you were trying to steer it, you had about as much chance of success as “a pebble in a volcanic eruption,” as my friend and fellow Occupier Han Shan liked to put it at the time.

But this editorial isn’t just about Occupy Wall Street. This editorial is about the Democratic Party’s fatal error in ignoring Occupy’s warnings. If the party continues to deny the deep crises of inequality and democracy that Occupy named, our nation will very likely succumb to the dangerous rising authoritarianism that we have only gotten a small taste of with Donald Trump’s presidency.

It is tempting to look at a social movement like Occupy Wall Street and define it only by its most visible and most enthusiastic core participants. In this view, Occupy was composed of those kids in the park, some of whom could really use a shower, and, Jesus, it’s 2 a.m., when will this drumming stop? For those in power, the solution was to remove those kids from the park and to not let them come back — which is what billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and mayors across the country, in coordination with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, did to their cities’ occupations. Occupy Wall Street was over then, they declared. “And it failed!” they loved to add.

But if Occupy Wall Street was only about the few thousand people who actively occupied Zuccotti Park, we wouldn’t still be talking about it today. Occupy Wall Street rang in a new common sense about how our economy and political system had been rigged by the few against the many. For three decades prior, it was as if some curse had prevented any mention of class — unless it was “middle class,” said by politicians on repeat. The wealth would trickle down, we were told. The American Dream, the idea that if you worked hard enough you could get ahead, was supposedly achievable by anyone. If you suggested otherwise, you were waging “class warfare” and probably a communist. There was, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, no alternative to unfettered capitalism. (Democrats seemed to agree!)

But three years after the financial meltdown in 2008, it was clear we needed an alternative. The political leadership of both parties had failed to hold anyone meaningfully accountable for what happened. “Banks got bailed out,” as Occupy’s chant went, to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, and “we got sold out” with no relief provided to struggling homeowners or other working people who lost their savings overnight.

With Occupy, finally someone was saying “enough.” Like all social movements, it was an indicator of widespread strain and popular grievances. That’s why its language of the “99 percent versus the 1 percent” is still very much part of the popular vernacular, and Occupy’s critique of the consolidation of wealth and political power in our society has been a lens through which millions have interpreted the events of the past decade. Maybe the Occupiers looked a little strange, but at least someone was standing up to the fuckers at the top.

Maybe the Occupiers looked a little strange, but at least someone was standing up to the fuckers at the top.

It’s the same with today’s post-Occupy insurgent left. It is tempting to caricature it — hell, it often feels like we caricature ourselves — as small, marginal, and at the far end of public opinion. Indeed, many folks on the left are still struggling with an attachment to marginality, persisting in acting like our ideas have not become popular.

And the Democratic Party establishment is oscillating between taking us seriously as a threat to their control of the party and telling themselves and voters that we’re fringe. Often, they look at today’s insurgent left a lot like Bloomberg looked at Occupy Wall Street: How can we get rid of these meddling kids? How can we circle the wagons to make sure their candidates lose to our candidates?

But it’s not true. Most people want health care and an economy that works for the working class. Most people want to tax the rich. Most people are tired of war. We are a threat precisely because the broad agenda we are advocating is popular.

The Democratic Party’s mistake is imagining that the left only represents itself, just like thinking Occupy was just “those countercultural kids occupying the park” — and that mistake could be fatal come the 2022 midterms. Evicting Zuccotti Park didn’t solve the underlying crises that Occupy named any more than defeating the Bernie Sanders insurgency did. Inequality has only gotten worse, and now we have several additional apocalyptic crises to go with it.

Occupy Wall Street Marks One-Year Anniversary With Protests

Protesters affiliated with Occupy Wall Street march wearing Mitt Romney and Barack Obama masks on Sept. 17, 2012, in New York.

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Back to my friend Guido. He sees the progressive populist rebellion that Occupy took to new levels as having started with President Barack Obama, back when he was a long shot, underdog candidate. “Obama implored us to not see red states and blue states, but to see the United States, and told us to not trust the pundits,” Guido said. Obama ran an incredible “people’s history” kind of campaign, in which he told the story of the U.S. from the perspective of those groups that had to fight and claw their way into the polity: Abolitionists and rebel slaves, suffragettes, labor unionists, and Stonewall rioters were in the story. Unfortunately, Obama’s insurgency as a candidate stopped in its tracks when he became “friend-of-the-establishment” President Obama, governing with the same corporate-friendly and technocratic approach that dominated the Democratic Party.

“The disappointment among young people around what Obama achieved was carried into Occupy,” Guido told me. Many Occupiers had volunteered for the 2008 Obama campaign. In Occupy, they found the class cleavage — and the naming of culprits at the top — that Obama had shied away from.

However, partly because of the dominant ethos of Occupy that opposed electoral strategy, it would still be a few years before the popular framing of the “99 percent versus the 1 percent” would translate into electoral insurgency. In late 2015, Sanders’s first presidential campaign started turning heads, as excited young lefties and a horrified Democratic Party establishment alike began to grasp his potential viability. And it started really making tracks in 2017 and 2018 with the election of “the Squad” and their counterparts in state and municipal seats across the country. Guido was part of this: After Occupy, he went on to co-found the Sunrise Movement (and co-edited a great book about it) and now works as media director for Justice Democrats, the organization that helped put progressive insurgents like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, and Jamaal Bowman into Congress.

All this means, essentially, that the authoritarian right got an eight-year head start on electoralizing popular anti-establishment sentiment, starting in early 2009 with the tea party. That head start has been incredibly consequential. The right’s reactionary insurgency succeeded spectacularly, consolidating the rebellion into an electoral takeover. In 2014, tea party activists unseated GOP House Speaker Eric Cantor, and two and a half years after that, they helped deliver the presidency to Trump. At first, the GOP establishment resisted the insurgency, but Trump quickly consolidated his control and brought the rebellion — and the energy that came with it — into the party.

As my friend and fellow Occupier Michelle Crentsil lamented, “When Occupy named the crisis, the Democratic Party didn’t do anything to translate that into building power. They got scared and were like, ‘Oh, what if this gets too out of control? Oh no, the socialists are out.’ But the right was figuring out how to use it to catapult themselves into power.”

“When Occupy named the crisis, the Democratic Party didn’t do anything to translate that into building power.”

So while the GOP has harnessed popular discontent, bringing as many disaffected voters into the fold as possible, Democrats are still struggling massively with voter abstentionism — the inevitable result of decades of not giving the base much to be excited about beyond beating the other team.

To be fair, following Trump’s 2016 victory, a massive wave of liberal and progressive energy flooded the Democratic Party and grassroots organizations alike with an army of volunteers, many of whom were diving into politics for the first time — a nationwide democratic revival if there ever was one. The initial surge could be seen in big cities, suburbs, small cities, towns, and even rural areas, and participants hailed from a mix of working-class and middle-class backgrounds. As an example, resistance groups emerged, practically overnight, in every one of my home state of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. The Democratic Party had a real opportunity to stop and perhaps reverse a decadeslong bleed of working-class voters — both white voters and voters of color.

But the Democratic Party squandered this opportunity to harness popular energy, once again ignoring the lessons of Occupy. In a little-noticed numbers-crunching article on FiveThirtyEight, Nathaniel Rakich showed how by 2018 “on average (and relative to partisan lean), Democrats [were] doing better in working-class areas than in suburban ones.” Rakich’s main argument was that following popular reactions to Trump’s 2016 victory, Democrats had roughly as good odds of winning over working-class voters as they did affluent voters and that they would likely see some positive results no matter which voters they invested resources into reaching. But Rakich warned that such positive results could be self-reinforcing: If Democrats invested only in winning affluent suburban voters, those efforts would produce some results, and this would bolster Democrats’ resolve that they had chosen wisely.

That is exactly what happened: The Democratic Party focused its efforts almost exclusively on winning over a relatively small sliver of affluent suburban swing voters. Sen. Chuck Schumer said it as clearly as anyone, in the summer of 2016: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” They effectively conceded that, despite the party’s proud New Deal history, courting working-class voters was no longer the party’s forte. It was as if Occupy Wall Street and Sanders’s 2016 campaign had never happened. Schumer’s strategy did not work out so well for Democrats that year.

More than 28,000 people flooded Brooklyn's Prospect Park for

More than 28,000 people flooded Brooklyn, New York’s Prospect Park to see presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on April 17, 2016.

Photo: Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Looking back at the past 10 years, it’s clear how much the window of what is politically possible and politically necessary has expanded since Occupy, and it’s important to recognize the ways that the Democratic Party has been shifting. Even President Joe Biden and Schumer, now Senate majority leader, seem to finally recognize that the game has changed dramatically — abandoning the tactics that mired the country in recession after 2008 in favor of a broad investment in working people during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Congress’s first budget reconciliation bill this year constituted a significant break from neoliberal business-as-usual for the Democratic Party; the benefits to working-class people and poor people are significant, and Sanders, as chair of the Senate Budget Committee, was central. (Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers had the audacity to say out loud how butthurt he was about it.) It also seems that Biden and Schumer are serious about corralling the self-styled “moderates” (code for “I benefit from the status quo”) in the Senate to pass a second, bigger budget reconciliation bill, as well as critical voting rights legislation, filibuster reform, and more. Compare that with the Obama administration, which chose to twist the arms of more than 60 progressive House representatives instead of a few obstructionist Democratic senators (thanks Rahm Emmanuel!) to pass inadequate health care legislation.

Biden and Schumer seem to grasp that if they do not deliver substantially and visibly for working people, they will be toast in 2022 and 2024. (Surely it doesn’t hurt that Schumer has the very possible threat of a primary challenge from AOC in the back of his mind.) There’s also the small matter that, compared to five years ago, the threat of authoritarian consolidation of the political system in the next two to four years is no longer a wild hypothetical that chicken littles (who have understood the populist moment better than Democrats) warn about.

But the progressive movements and organizations that have arisen in Occupy’s wake are not going to wait passively for Democrats to deliver for the working class. We continue to organize people, develop leaders, and recruit candidates and campaigns for office and on our issues. Since Occupy, the left has been building its strategic capacity in important ways, with new vehicles like Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement, or at the local and state level, organizations like Lancaster Stands Up and Pennsylvania Stands Up (I am duty-bound to shout out the organizations I helped start), and a revitalization of existing vehicles like Democratic Socialists of America and People’s Action. Building organizations and unleashing popular movements remain the primary means by which everyday people have a chance of contending against the formidable power of organized money.

So, happy birthday to Occupy Wall Street, the movement that helped inaugurate the start of a revival of a hitherto long-declining American left. Like Occupy, we remain under-resourced, struggling to get ourselves organized, and often a mess — but it’s in the eye of the beholder how beautiful that mess is.

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