Jonathan Cohn

Why Occupy Wall Street Makes Me (Mostly) Optimistic

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Occupy Wall Street this week is finally getting some attention. And that's a good thing, if only for what it says about the media's awareness. Right-wing activism has gotten plenty of attention in the last few years. Left-wing activism deserves it, too.

But is Occupy Wall Street, and its fellow travelers across the country, actually a good thing for lefty causes? I honestly don't know. But based purely on second-hand impressions of the demonstrations, which are all I have right now, I can find at least one reason to be optimistic.

During my lifetime, the activist left has gone through several incarnations, focusing on a series of different causes. For much of the 80s and 90s, very generally speaking, the focus was largely on identity politics. Then attention moved to globalization and then, during the Bush presidency, to wars abroad.

As far as I can tell, this is the first time the activist left has focused seriously on issues of economic opportunity at home. In fact, I think it's the first time such issues have been front and center since the 1930s, although I'll defer to the historians on that one. Either way, this movement has a chance to help shape the debate over economic policy in this country -- not merely about the financial industry, which is the object of protests right now, but also about inequality generally. 

True, the protesters don't have such an agenda right now. In fact, they don't really have any agenda at all, at least in the traditional sense. But it's not like their animating worldview is such a mystery. As David Dayen writes, 

[a decade from now] the meaning underlying a sit-in on Wall Street would be fairly obvious to you. It would mean you’ve lived through the housing bubble, the financial crisis, the bailout, and the Great Recession, with millions of people desperate and out of work and the bailed out finance industry bouncing back almost immediately.

Really, you need to figure out the “meaning” of a demonstration on Wall Street? Really?

This movement could run out of gas or take what I would consider a wrong turn. It could, for example, inflame tensions between blue collar and white collar Americans, rather than improving solidarity between them. It could also become captive to its fringe elements. 

For now, though, I'm happy to see people getting organized to promote a left-of-center economic agenda, however vague its agenda -- and however uncertain its future.

Update: Michelle Goldberg has a terrific dispatch conveying just the kinds of hopes and fears I'm talking about above, only with actual first impressions. It's definitely worth a read.

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