If the Tea Party was all muscle and cacophony, Occupy Wall Street is space music and wisps of smoke. The Tea Party swiftly veered into mainstream electoral politics and is a real force nationally. Its transitional moment was when it let itself be captured by Dick Armey and the Koch Brothers, who infused big money and a corporate identity into what had been a spontaneous uprising of middle-aged populism. The Tea Party got stolen and has become a front for big corporations, deregulation, and the power of money.
The transitional moment is now at hand for OWS. Can a leaderless, amoeba-like network have a real impact on the institutions and policies it decries? Bloomberg's slick and effective movement cleansing at Zuccotti Park, coupled with similar police interventions across the country, are now forcing OWS to confront its future. This will be a different set of dynamics from what happened to the Tea Party, but it will define the long-term impact of OWS with as much clarity.
The transition to a functioning political/campaign/ground organization will not be easy for OWS. The Left is genetically more amorphous and disorganized than the Right, and OWS prides itself on a particular brand of participatory democracy that is slow, laborious and often aggravating. The nightly General Assemblies that set policy and make decisions for OWS are estimable and delightful, but not consistent with the speed and decisiveness that modern politics prizes.
There are reasons to think that OWS will be able to adapt and survive First and foremost it has a message that rings out and touches people all across the world, much less the United States. Simply put, OWS stands for two propositions that have swept the field and been embraced by people across the ideological spectrum.
One, the enormous concentration of wealth in few hands (the 1%) is bad for societies of every stripe, bad for economic growth, unfair and unsustainable, and not to be tolerated.
Two, the institutions of government have stopped serving the interests of most people (the 99%) and work in the interests of elites. These messages resonate on the streets of Cairo, London, Athens, Moscow and Peoria, and will sooner or later reach Beijing, Tokyo, Rio and Washington.
Combine these two and you have a powerful, broadly popular message and a powerful, broadly available machine to send that message across the world. That is the stuff of real change. It isn't a done deal. The OWS folks are serious about transparency, accountability and democratic principles. No one has ever tried to marry the first two assets with the latter liabilities, and it may be that little will come of this transition.
The movement has a marvelous capacity to communicate, especially with tech-savvy under-40's. The ability to share, shout, scheme and organize is unlike anything we've ever seen, and gives legs to a movement that ordinarily would drift away as it lost its physical base and sense of novelty.
We tend to judge these things by their short-term effects. It is perfectly reasonable to ask if OWS will be part of the 2012 campaign, and if Obama can capture its' agenda and energy for the purposes of beating back the genuine reactionaries in the Republican Party. It seems to be a natural alliance, and from the OWS point of view Obama is clearly preferable to a Romney/Newt/Anyone But Romney Presidency.
But Obama's diffident style, his refusal (until three days ago) to adopt Rooseveltian rhetoric (remember the "Malefactors Of Great Wealth" phrase that Republican Teddy coined), and his embrace of Democrats with impeccable "malefactor" credentials all limit his appeal. It's by no mean certain that OWS will have the same practical effect on Democrats that the Tea Party had on Republicans.
In the end, if the OWS message becomes the focus of the campaign, he wins. If the anti-government, austerity message becomes the focus, Romney/Newt/any Republican wins. And OWS embrace of that message in the direct heat of a campaign may be the difference in the outcome.