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Why Liberals Should Embrace Occupy Wall Street

“A mixture of undesirables—thieves, plug-uglies, degenerates.” That’s how in 1932 a newspaper described the veterans who were marching upon Washington, demanding their promised bonuses. There was some truth in the description: The marchers included a few undesirables. But the majority were simply people who were struggling and wanted their fair share. Their actions would lay the groundwork for what became the 1930s left, which helped revive a floundering liberalism and make possible the New Deal.

Stop by Zuccotti Park or any of the other spaces across the country that Occupy Wall Street has claimed in recent weeks and you’ll find a similarly motley group, with some modern-day “undesirables”—not thieves and degenerates, perhaps, but at least a few anarchists, communists, and bigots, along with plenty of funny-looking people making funny-sounding music. That’s how protest movements almost invariably emerge: The first to join them are the ones most willing to break with the conventions of mainstream society.

But at these demonstrations you’ll also find plenty of people who’ve come simply because they belong to what has come to be known as the “Other 99 Percent.” They are among the growing number of Americans struggling financially, even as the very wealthy flourish. They can't find jobs. They can't pay their student loans, their mortgages or medical bills. They've fallen way behind and see no way to get ahead. Their agenda is muddled and in many cases their thinking is, too. But they know that something has gone very wrong in their country and instead of blaming illegal immigrants or Barack Hussein Obama, they are pointing their finger at America’s plutocratic minority.

Many of the same people joined groups like in the early decade. They protested against George W. Bush and the Iraq War, and they thronged to the Obama campaign in 2008. More broadly, they are part of the progressive ferment that began fifty years ago, subsided during the great conservative counter-reaction that began in the 1970s, but that has begun to swell again in the last two decades. They care about human rights, clean air, gay marriage. They put “people before profits,” as the Clinton campaign put it in 1992. They are egalitarian, sometimes to a fault. After Obama took office, they rested their hopes for change on his presidency. He was, after all, the candidate of change. But they have been sorely disappointed, and in the wake of the sordid negotiations over the debt ceiling, some of them have taken their frustration to the streets.

The protesters are better at generating slogans than programs. There’s no clear agenda, but instead a hodgepodge of grievances and demands. Some of those demands, like a reform of campaign finance, speak directly to the matter at hand. Some of them, like protecting animal rights or ending alleged American colonialism, do not. But the heart of the movement is its focus on the inequality of wealth and power, and the way that it has undermined American democracy. Many liberals recognize those values and have, with some caution, embraced the movement. They are wise to do so.

LIKE THE LABOR MOVEMENT, or the old Populists and Socialists of Eugene Debs, liberalism arose in the early twentieth century as a reaction to the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism. But instead of trying to overthrow capitalism, as radicals did, it sought to create a more egalitarian version of it.

In that way, liberals and the left have always had a complicated, symbiotic relationship. Franklin Roosevelt disdained Huey Long’s Share the Wealth movement and was probably not excited about armed farmers preventing foreclosures or about striking workers. But unlike Herbert Hoover, who turned to Douglas MacArthur to drive the Bonus Marchers out of Washington, Roosevelt responded to these pressures from below not with troops, but with positive legislation—indeed, it was precisely Roosevelt’s liberalism that inclined him to do so.

The movements saw it as their task to force Roosevelt’s hand; he, in turn, understood his mission as the transformation of their sometimes unreasonable demands into the great reforms of the Second New Deal. And that is how it was throughout the 20th century. Social security, the minimum wage, Medicare, environmental protection, the government’s commitment to civil and sexual equality—all these came out of liberalism’s interaction with the left.

Sometimes, liberals have hemmed and hawed about protests, pleading that things were complex and that change was too difficult. The left, on the other hand has sometimes dismissed liberals as tools of corporate capitalism. But this kind of suspicion and derision has not benefitted either side. Without liberalism, the left and its movements slip into extremism that ends up validating their harshest opponents. That happened in the 1920s when the Communists vied with the Socialists for leadership of the left; it happened again during the late 1960s when the New Left veered out of control. The converse is equally true: Without leftwing ferment from below, liberalism becomes powerless in the face of business and the organized right. That happened in the 1920s and the 1980s and in the early part of this century—and it threatens to happen again now.  

Don’t some of the Wall Street protesters show illiberal impulses? Yes —and more will do so in the future. What is there to say about an assemblage of protestors in Atlanta denying Congressman John Lewis the right to speak because, in a fit of egalitarian pique, they didn’t want to acknowledge that one voice might have more authority than others? Or members of an extreme antiwar clique free-riding on the Occupy protests and invading the Air and Space Museum, a favorite weekend destination for visiting tourists and their children, in order to protest a display of drones?

These actions are not on a par with Tea Party members spitting on Rep. Emanuel Cleaver or heckling gay congressman Barney Frank. They pose no serious threat to civility or order. Most important, they do not seem emblematic of the movement as a whole. But they sully the left and, by the way, alienate would-be supporters. Those actions, and the minority of people behind them, deserve condemnation.

Parsing out genuine grievance and popular protest from the sectarian eccentricity, adolescent theatricality, and narrow self-interest will be an ongoing project—a difficult one, yes, but also a worthwhile one. The world is in the grips of severe economic downturn, causing considerable human misery; an alliance of business and conservative Republicans threatens to make matters much worse. The Occupy Wall Street movements may not survive the onset of cold weather and rain. But, along with Elizabeth Warren’s fledgling Senate campaign in Massachusetts and the continuing protest against autocratic government in Ohio and Wisconsin, they represent a genuine spark of grassroots political action—a chance, finally, to redeem the promise of Obama’s 2008 campaign. We have to make sure we don’t squander it.

Jonathan Cohn and John B. Judis are senior editors at The New Republic.