Can the Power of Occupy Wall Street Make Obama a Populist?

It's been a little over a month since this bolt of political lightning known as Occupy Wall Street jolted through the political establishment. It's time to assess just what Occupy Wall Street has gotten done. That it has accomplished a great deal is beyond dispute. Franklin Foer in the New Republic and John Nichols in the Nation have both noted that Occupy Wall Street profoundly challenged President Obama and the Republicans. But what an odd challenge. A few thousand people camped out in parks around the country? Really?

Yet this challenge has completely changed the dominant theme in Washington. Less than a year ago, JP Morgan's Bill Daley was the glad-handling centrist du jour, praised by everyone from Howard Dean to Bob Reich. The “austerity class,” as Ari Berman so nicely put it, was in control of the debate, with the Tea Party waiting in the wings ready to slash and burn.

Fast forward to October 2011. Obama is increasingly taking on a populist tone and using executive orders to attempt stimulating the economy, with Democrats smacking around Mitt Romney for encouraging foreclosures as a way to clear the market (a policy Obama administration officials like HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan agree with. The centrists are losing, perhaps not power, but certainly the debate. Third Way, the political brain behind this centrist White House and Senate, is one of the few groups warning Democrats away from Occupy Wall Street, but few are listening.

There's a reason; the themes put out by the protesters are overwhelmingly popular. The poll numbers are out. If Occupy Wall Street were a national candidate for president, it would be blowing away every other candidate on the stage, including Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Fifty-four percent of Americans agree with the protesters, versus 44 percent who think President Obama is doing a good job. Seventy-three percent of Americans want prosecutions for Wall Street executives for the crisis. Seventy-nine percent think the gap between rich and poor is too large. Eighty-six percent say Wall Street and its lobbyists have too much power in Washington. Sixty-eight percent think the rich should pay more in taxes. Twenty-five percent of the public considers itself upset, 45 percent is concerned about the country and 25 percent is downright angry.

That these themes are dominating establishment debates now is somewhat bizarre. It's not as if people didn't hate banks in 2008, 2009 or 2010. And when you think about it, camping out in various cities isn't a particularly radical act, in and of itself. Occupy Wall Street can't project political power, at least not in any traditional sense. It can't make decisions about how to relate to the police, or politicians. It is ideologically incoherent. It can't even stop drum circles from drumming at night, because drummers don't recognize the legitimacy of the general assemblies that try to cut deals with the neighborhood. There are increasing reports of medical and safety problems in parks around the country. One person at the protests told me the World War I disease called trenchfoot is making an appearance due to damp conditions. The protests are a ball of raw energy, with one basic message: The 1 percent on Wall Street have taken advantage of the 99 percent of the rest of us.

Yet this message is resonating, deeply. What the occupiers have done, perhaps unwittingly, is force political elites to choose, at least publicly, between their funding stream and their popular legitimacy. Wall Street lobbyists are absolutely furious at Obama for embracing the protests, but protesters aren't particularly enthused to have establishment praise. Barney Frank goes to raise money from Wall Street, while lamenting how the protesters didn't vote in 2010. The occupiers as a group are split on voting; some think participation in politics is essential while others think participation in this system is immoral. One thing that's clear is that occupiers do not see Obama's reelection as a particularly significant goal, at least not now.

This movement has heightened the contradictions of both parties, the Wall Street funding of the Democratic Party and its associated institutions, as well as the faux populism of the Tea Party-infused Republican. The main message of the occupiers is that the government and Wall Street are one tangled corrupt mess screwing everyone else. Centrists, many of whom live in the Democratic Party, at the Fed, in banks, and in law firms and think tanks, are the key linchpin of this system. They make the trains run on time, shuffling between the various institutions of national power. And they have a long history of dancing in between popular legitimacy and corrupt financial elites. An example is the Democratic embrace of Fannie Mae as an institution that broadens access to housing. This company was corrupt to the core, and the people profiting from it have gone on to senior administration positions in the White House — Tom Donolan in National Security, Rahm Emanuel, Bill Daley, Peter Orszag, etc. These are the people who are centrally implicated by Occupy Wall Street.

Centrists dealing with the occupiers are suffering because they must now choose between their funding stream and their popular legitimacy. Michael Bloomberg, the centrist mayor of New York, is perceived of as weak by his friends, but he is also increasingly unpopular in the city. Rahm Emanuel, Chicago mayor, must now openly arrest the people he used to badmouth and bully while in the White House.

The gravitational pull of the occupiers is remarkable to behold. Tea Partiers are angry at the stolen thunder. Wall Street tycoon Larry Fink (who is on the investor, not the banks side) offered praise for the protests. Liberal Democratic groups like Moveon and Democracy for America have a new language and group to organize around, instead of defending the White House. Labor now has another horse to back, a motley energetic group calling itself the 99 percent, rather than a mild center-right Democratic elite class. Big-dollar liberal donors are excited to find a way to tap into this “energy.” The occupiers are considered a new pole in the political system, “Krugman's army,” perhaps.

Like a major national primary against a sitting-though-unpopular president, this movement is sending a signal to the existing elites. Change and deliver on a new social contract, or else. It isn't clear what “or else” means. Perhaps this is signifying a collapse of older institutional arrangements, or a breakdown in belief in existing authority structures. Perhaps this is the first of many large-scale civil disturbances, and a spark that will lead the establishment to solidify its authoritarian impulses. Maybe the training of tens of thousands of people around the world in nonviolent non-electoral means of challenging power, the legitimization of protest, the introduction of new areas of contention like the role of the Federal Reserve, and the re-mainstreaming of figures like Noam Chomsky and the promotion of people like Naomi Klein and Chris Hedges are signifying a larger shift in our political culture. It's too early to know.

But something big is afoot. “Culture-jammers” from the site Adbusters, a motley group of anarchists from a makeshift shantytown known as Bloombergville, imported tactics from Spain and Egypt, and yes, social media, have set the political establishment back on its heels.