Like a loud and mighty rocket with insufficient power to break free of the earth's gravitational pull, Occupy Wall Street struggles to reach escape velocity, but keeps falling back to earth. The reason, ironically, is on the movement's own "unofficial" website, where it defines itself as a leaderless "resistance movement." The term is self-contradictory. Resistance suggests standing firm, while movement implies forward momentum. Observing them both with equal force simply leads to a stalemate. And that is precisely where the movement -- more than two months since launching -- finds itself today.
Dubious grammar isn't, of course, fatal to a movement, but it serves to illustrate how ultimately futile it is for 30,000 people in New York City and tens of thousands more around the world to fight for an idea by shouting it from the sideline to get everyone's attention, but not taking the next logical -- and necessary -- step, which is to take action.
In a very real sense, Occupy Wall Street had us at hello. But they kept talking so much and not taking action that people finally lost interest. This unpleasant fact is reflected in the latest USA Today poll, which finds that six out of 10 Americans are indifferent to the Occupy movement.
A Tea Party Moment
Last month, in criticizing the movement, Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times defined it as "a diffuse and leaderless convocation of activists against greed, corporate influence, gross social inequality and other nasty byproducts of wayward capitalism." That description (minus the snarky tone) is pretty much the consensus of many analysts. Yet, that is not why the movement failed. That description was also leveled against the Tea Party movement in its first months of existence. It too was widely criticized as being "diffuse and leaderless." Yet, by most accounts, the Tea Party succeeded far beyond anyone's expectation.
Even labeled with the same criticisms and failing to capture a majority of public support, the "diffuse and leaderless" Tea Party movement quickly took off and became a major force in American politics for one significant difference -- it took action. Unlike Occupy Wall Street, it did more than shout its messages from the sideline and disrupt political speeches: it aggressively identified and backed politicians who supported its causes and it rewarded, at the voting booth, those who publicly embraced them. At the height of its popularity, during the 2010 election cycle, 138 candidates for Congress identified themselves as Tea Party supporters.
While the Tea Party seems to have folded agreeably into the Republican Party, it continues to be a factor today because it remains firmly focused on the political process, as illustrated by the televised debate in September on CNN, which featured the 2012 GOP presidential hopefuls vying for their support. True, one can make the case that most politicians merely pander to the Tea Party to get its vote -- but then again, that's what politicians do to every group. The point is that the Tea Party made itself a force to be reckoned with.
In an ironically revealing article, Capital New York related a meeting last Friday at the SEIU building in Manhattan, where about 170 protesters regrouped following their ouster from Zuccotti Park in an overnight raid by New York City police. According to the writer, Matthew Wolfe, when organizers asked protesters to voice their top priorities, "the group seemed focused on short-term logistical goals (such as food and shelter) ... few speakers mentioned ... long-term political aims."
Regardless of where the rag-tag remnant of Occupy Wall Street makes its new home, organizers will likely find it to be a lonely existence. We're all sympathetic to dissatisfied coworkers who complain about their jobs. But when we realize they don't mean to do anything but whine, we quickly dismiss them.