Just over two months in, the sheen has already worn off Occupy Wall Street. Previously enshrined in the public imagination as a group of heroic callers-out of corporate capitalist cronyism, its image has morphed. As a host of commentators have pointed out—some in these pages—OWS has suffered from its members’ tangibly demonstrated irresponsibility (most notably, their trashing of local businesses and of the occupied spaces themselves, both of which cost small entrepreneurs and cities large sums of money) and from its lack of even a tentative collection of long-term goals. To its credit, the movement has effectively called attention to the endurance of a massively unregulated and still irresponsible financial sector (the “one percent”) and to the still-increasing wealth gap in American society, facts which were virtually submerged for two years under a barrage of Tea Party activism and Fox News propaganda. But at this point, not only is OWS’s anarchism and irresponsibility weighing against its achievements, but shifting public perception of the movement is actually threatening to harm the advancement of pro-regulatory sentiment and legislation. So for the moment at least, left-wing populism has stalled.
In light of this not entirely unpredictable shift, the White House’s public ambivalence toward OWS might seem wise, if not for the fact that the president has recently taken to embracing left-wing populist rhetoric in an attempt to rally his base into pre-election fervor. This is not an especially effective strategy at present for two main reasons. First, when the president rails against the Republican Party as a collection of corrupt corporatists while ignoring OWS and taking pains to retain the services of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, the most visible symbol of the Wall Street-Washington nexus within his administration, the charge of hypocrisy rears its head. Second, big-government liberal populism rings about as false at the moment as small-government conservative populism: the broad majority of Americans feel equally alienated from big government and from big business. So the White House (encouraged by a base which appears so relieved at the fact that the president is finally taking a stand about something that it has forgone wondering whether he’s taking a stand that is actually shrewd) seems to be misinterpreting the public mood.
The Republicans are not faring much better; in fact, they may be faring worse, thanks to their potent combination of unmerited overconfidence and unrestrained ire. Their base has ceased to appear disciplined; it now seems as self-indulgent, in its own way, as the Occupiers. Cheering Rick Perry for executing over 200 people? Shouting, of sick Americans lacking Medicare, “Let them die”? Schizophrenically shifting support for candidates who range from consistently indiscreet (Newt Gingrich) to verbally comatose (Rick Perry) to grossly incompetent (Herman Cain)? True, there are plausible reasons for Republicans’ current embrace of extremes: their dislike of self-righteous “liberal elites,” their dislike of “ObamaCare,” their dislike of Mitt Romney. But theirs is not an example of savvy political operating; it’s pure frustration, which seems to have little tangible effect beyond alienating independents whom the party will need next year. And the Tea Party movement—which offered a disciplined though irate message of small-government libertarianism—has gone quieter. Part of the reason the Tea Partiers have lost resonance is along the same lines that the president’s newfound populism has yet to take root: people think big government and big business are jointly the problem, and criticizing one while supporting the other seems either ideologically blinkered or disingenuous.
The current failure of populism on both the left and the right is understandable; providing focus to groups of grassroots activists, each with his or her own particular grievance, is far from easy. Preventing ideological extremism from creeping into the mix, especially in reaction to an unresponsive political system, is even harder. Moreover, rarely do populist movements succeed without the presence of a powerful, charismatic leader who carries national cachet and whom the base trusts (that demagoguery proves necessary to advance a movement “of the people” is one of populism’s enduring paradoxes), and neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama fits the bill. Nor should the failure of hardcore leftist or rightist discourse to gain widespread momentum imply that the bases won’t continue to be influential, albeit perhaps in quieter ways.
But American politics operate on the unpredictable decisions of a growing clique of undecideds and independents, and the declining influence of hardline ideological rhetoric suggests that this crucial group will most likely be moved by rhetorical pragmatism in the near future. Even smart political philosophical arguments like Elizabeth Warren’s will not resonate to the same degree as a cogent critique of big public and private institutions that currently seem immune from oversight. The most compelling example I have seen of this blended perspective came last month from Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan. Ryan is known as the “ideas man” of the Republican Party—hardly a compliment at the moment, and often an undeserved one in his case. But Ryan’s speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C. was shrewd. America’s real problem, he suggested, was “a class of bureaucrats and connected crony capitalists trying to rise above the rest of us, call the shots, rig the rules, and preserve their place atop society.” Here is an unoriginal, but smart, brand of pragmatic politics—un-tinged by hardcore libertarian dogma or liberal moralism—that will likely resonate with many frustrated people, provided that one of the parties effectively popularizes it. But such an outcome is not necessarily guaranteed: after all, the approach at which Ryan hints is one that demands risk-taking and flexibility, traits that have recently been in short supply in American political life.