There are a lot of reasons that elites keep their place at the top even after being party to catastrophic failures. One reason is their success in delegitimizing their critics. There’s often a lot of material to work with. If you spent any time at an Occupy Wall Street camp, you met a lot of great people, a number of ignorant protest groupies, and committees that chose the least workable form of group governance imaginable. Tea Party rallies were filled with both competents and crazies too. As were anti-war rallies.
The public was right to be wary of flaws and excesses, but anyone who dismissed these groups entirely because of them was part of the problem. And that was pretty common. For some reason, the press is complicit in a system by which groups challenging elites are deemed unserious due to the presence of any incompetent or radical fringe … whereas, say, presiding over 9/11, and then responding with a radical program of torture and a catastrophic war gets a president reelected and celebrated; and a Wall Street meltdown is followed by a bailout and record bonuses. To be taken seriously, those who critique elites must be without flaws, whereas the elites themselves are forgiven their most egregious errors in judgment.
I don’t think this is quite right. I mean, I could hardly agree more with Conor about the outrageousness of no comeuppance for elites who presided over catastrophes. But I simply can’t agree that the answer would have been to take Occupy and/or the Tea Party more seriously. If you read this blog during the Occupy protests, you’ll remember that I largely sympathized with their complaints, but thought they were, for the most part, ridiculous in their lack of strategy, or even goal-setting. The Tea Party groups were more successful politically than Occupy — it would be hard to have been more irrelevant in the long term than Occupy was — but they have failed to appeal beyond a hard core, in part because they are so highly and unrealistically ideological. They seem to exist as a protest movement, not as a movement that can actually get things done. I’ve talked to some Tea Partiers who are reasonable, even if I don’t share their passion or their ideology. But many Tea Partiers of my experience are like better organized version of Occupy: long on outrage, but short on any serious idea about what might be done to fix the (very real) problems that provoked their outrage. That, plus their combativeness, inability to tolerate dissent, and reliance on sloganeering, has kept them from being the broad-based movement that might have significantly changed politics in this country. No doubt about it, they’ve elected their brand of Republican to Congress — something Occupy didn’t do from the Left — but they have not made significant inroads among independents. Indeed, they have made the GOP more ideologically extreme, and therefore less able to reach and rally voters without the same hard edge to their politics.
It’s hard to believe that the utter lack of effectiveness of Occupy, and the relative lack of effectiveness of the Tea Party, would have been changed had we all taken them more seriously. It really is outrageous that there has been so little accountability for US elites in various political, military, and financial scandals. But saying so, and doing something meaningful about it, are two very different things. Conor is right to say that we mustn’t let the fact that there will be loons and knotheads in any protest movement take away from the justice of the protest. I agree. But again, I don’t think the problem with Occupy, and to a lesser but still meaningful degree with the Tea Party, was a lack of outrage; it was with the implausibility of what both protest movements proposed to do about the problem. That, plus the fact that they were all so decentralized and haphazard meant that there was little chance they could build something lasting to challenge and change the establishment. Besides which, both opposed the elites, but had very different ideas for what caused the mess.
I may be wrong in some of these generalizations, but I don’t think I’m wrong in saying this: the flaws in both the Tea Party and Occupy movements — especially their inchoate agendas, lack of strategy, and decentralized nature — account for their failures to amount to much. I’m still wondering why we never had a serious challenge to the status quo in light of all these enormous failures. Populists don’t have to be flawless, but they do have to be credible.