Wall Street protesters share the Tea Party’s illusions

As I walked toward One Liberty Plaza on the first Friday in October, I thought about the Arcade Fire song “Rococo,” in which lead singer Win Butler lambastes “the modern kids” who use “great big words that they don’t understand” and build up an institution “just to burn it back down.” At the time it seemed an apt description of the Occupy Wall Street protesters who had seized the plaza—mostly young kids who enjoyed the fruits of American capitalism but now talked of tearing down the system that weaned them.

After walking around the protest for a half hour or so, I felt secure in that prejudice. A dozen or so drummers pounded away in a corner, their ceaseless rhythm rumbling through the canyons of lower Manhattan for at least a quarter mile in any direction. In the middle of the protesters’ impromptu shantytown, four people sat at a marble table busily rolling cigarettes behind a donation bucket and sign reading “Free Cigarettes: Nick@Nite.” The atmosphere led one of my friends to remark that it was “all the worst aspects of a hippie festival with none of the drugs.”

With the exception of a smattering of Ron Paul signs, the protesters’ placards and literature showed an almost universal hostility to a market economy. A young man in a suit handed out a semi-official pamphlet welcoming me to the occupation. It advised me to visit the food bar where I could dine on granola and “Occu-pie” and suggested that after eating I should “feel free to refresh [myself] in the restrooms of neighboring businesses like Burger King and McDonalds without feeling obligated to buy anything.”

The pamphlet listed only one political demand: “Stop Corporate Personhood.” This was a relatively common theme on the signs, but for all that talk, many protesters also advocated an increase in corporate taxes, evidently failing to realize that the one policy precludes the other. Near the People’s Library, a piece of paper hung on the wall urging adoption of a mandatory four-day work week because it “keeps all the efficiencies of capitalism” but forces employers to hire the currently jobless to make up for the 20 percent reduction in labor hours.

As my group began walking uptown on Broadway, we ran into another throng of protesters marching down to the main demonstration. I stepped back and started snapping pictures just in time to capture a handsome young man with spiky blond hair dressed smartly in a black collared shirt and matching jeans. He carried a sign urging us to “Occupy Everything” because “we already know that we own everything.” With his square jaw and the steely resolve in his eyes he looked like a Bizzaro John Galt, ready to throw himself on the gears of modern capitalism and grind them to a halt.

I left that night convinced that the protest was little more than the latest banshee cry of the radical left. Over the weekend, however, hundreds of protesters were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge and similar occupations sprang up across the country. These developments prompted me to return to One Liberty Plaza the next Tuesday.

I arrived just in time for the General Assembly, where the plaza’s occupants attempt to build consensus about how their community should be run. Protesters are prohibited from using amplification, so to ensure that everyone can hear the proceedings they use what they call the “human mic,” whereby all participants repeat what the person who has the floor just said. Periclean Athens this wasn’t. Still, it struck me as a genuine attempt by the protesters to build something real.

As I interviewed some of the protesters that night, I discovered that many of them were not driven by a blind rage against capitalism but were simply trying to assert some modicum of control over institutions they believe are running over them roughshod. Carey Tan, an event planner with a nonprofit, told me she wanted the Glass-Steagall Act put back into place “to make sure my money isn’t being used to buy … sub-prime mortgages and lots of risky investments.” She also wanted to see the revolving door between business and government closed but was unsure how that could be accomplished.

Joe Therrien, a teacher in Brooklyn, echoed Tan’s argument about Glass-Steagall and also called for higher taxes on the rich and corporations. But he was not opposed to corporations as such, saying that he “want[s] there to be rich companies in America” and thinks they should pay more in taxes because they benefit from government services. Therrien was refreshingly humble about the limits of his own knowledge and put his faith in the ability of Americans to solve our problems through civil discourse. He said that although “there are individuals who claim to have the answers … as a group, we’re trying to figure it out together.”

You can disagree with Tan’s policy proposals or call Therrien’s trust in participatory democracy naïve, but these were not bomb-throwing radicals. They are relatively ordinary Americans who looked around one day, saw obviously dysfunctional political and economic systems, and decided to do something about them. And although the media portrays them as the Wall Street protesters’ polar opposites, the same can be said of most Tea Partiers. The Tea Party is older and more conservative, while the Occupiers are younger and more left-wing, but both are attempting to come to terms with American decline. They are both sincere and well-meaning in their own ways, but our problems are much more severe than either group dares admit.

It’s easy to scapegoat earmark spending (never mind that middle-class entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare are the real driving forces of government spending) or the 1 percent on Wall Street who are supposedly exploiting the rest of us poor bastards (never mind that most of us own stocks and bonds), but these are lies. Comforting lies, but lies nonetheless.

On Tuesday night, I stumbled across Jimmy McMillan—the Rent Is Too Damn High Party guy—standing on the edge of the plaza with a small crowd around him. “Go home,” he roared to the mostly uninterested protesters. “Make love to your girl.” When I asked him for an explanation of the comment, he told me that all Americans are responsible for our current predicament because they have perpetuated a corrupted political system. Now “the diehard Democrat is dying real hard.”

McMillan’s comments give away his political self-interest, of course, but they at least confronted the fact that we largely brought our woes upon ourselves by living beyond our means. The 1 percent in government and business may have made our bed, but we slept in it, happily dreaming the impossible, and now we refuse to shake off our delusional slumber. The Federal Reserve and the lending institutions sold us houses at 3 percent interest and no money down, but we bought them.

American exceptionalism and privilege are crashing down around us, but these protest groups—like the vast majority of Americans—refuse to reconcile themselves to this new, hostile reality. The world will move on without us; we are no longer the indispensable nation. Once we accept that fact, we can get down to the difficult business of becoming a normal country. Until then, Occupiers and Tea Partiers will remain little more than petulant children crying over the spilled milk of the American empire.

John Payne is director of research at Americans for Forfeiture Reform.