Why the Left Is Often Late to Tea

The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) phenomenon, as nascent as it is long overdue, represents an opportunity unparalleled in recent American history for a grassroots movement motivated by progressive sentiments to change American political culture. But in order to do so, it must learn some lessons from the Left's own history, from the Arab Spring and, ironically enough, from the Tea Party with which it is so often compared.

I went to Oberlin College at the height of the anti-Vietnam War movement. At Oberlin the principal focus of that movement was the military recruiters who came to campus to seek candidates for ROTC. One morning as the recruiter drove into town his car was surrounded by a group of 40 to 50 students. For more than four hours the recruiter sat in his car in his crisp uniform; the students chanted anti-war slogans; the recruiter would occasionally inch his car forward; the students would re-position themselves frantically to stop his movement; and the cries of "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?" would echo across the campus.

And then, after four hours, something very human happened. The recruiter said that he had to go to the bathroom. This was not something the students had planned on. It threw them into a quandary. Finally, this being the era of "participatory democracy," the students took a vote. By a close margin it was decided that they would allow the officer to get out of the car and go to the bathroom provided that he promised to return to captivity immediately after he had flushed. The recruiter readily agreed; the students set him free; and ten minutes later the devastating news was transmitted by word of mouth to the students surrounding the now-empty car: "The recruiter has broken his word!" He had gone straight from the bathroom to the administration building and had set up his recruiting table just as he'd planned to do four hours earlier.

I have always found this one of the most telling examples of why the left wing often fails at political change. In the first place, the students had no plan--not only no plan for a full bladder but no coordinated plan for what to do with the recruiter and the car other than hold them both indefinitely. This small incident of theater was not integrated into a larger strategy. And in the second place, the students had no adequate understanding of power. Here was a military officer trained in the ways of war who represented what the students regarded as a morally bankrupt government that would stop at nothing, including killing children, to achieve its ends. And yet a majority of students thought that this officer would for some reason feel himself morally compelled to keep a promise! The students had obviously never learned or had forgotten Frederick Douglas's famous words, "Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will."

CNN's Don Lemon recently said to the media spokesperson for Occupy Wall Street: "The Tea Party's message is 'No new taxes' and 'Smaller government.' What's yours?" The answer: "Active democracy and every voice counts." But those are instrumental messages. What OWS and its potential allies need is a demand--"Tax the 1%," perhaps. The Tea Party knows that demands can be rejected but they cannot be ignored. Vague stirrings of discontent, even rage, can be dismissed unless they are either channeled into political change within the system or grow so massive that they threaten to bring down the whole political infrastructure.

The latter is what happened in Tunis and Cairo. So many people took to the streets that they brought down the rulers themselves. But note two things. First, that they had very concrete demands: "Mubarak out!" and "Yes to human rights!" And second, that they succeeded because the police and military ultimately turned, at least temporarily, against the ruling elite. That is hardly a possibility in this country so it leaves the option of political transformation.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has gotten hold of profound truths: that after nearly destroying the economic underpinnings of the society, for example, corporations have managed largely to avoid meaningful new regulations and are now holding onto more than $2 trillion in cash and liquid assets--assets that could be used to put people back to work but are instead being hoarded by the already wealthy.

It ought to be a slam dunk to exploit such a situation for political change. And it will be if the Left learns what the Tea Party already knows. As one of its chief financiers, Charles Koch, put it: "To bring about social change [requires] a strategy that is vertically and horizontally integrated, [spanning everything] from idea creation to policy development to education to grassroots organizations to lobbying to litigation to political action." Or, as an old Zen saying has it, "After ecstasy, the laundry." Occupy Wall Street has tapped into the hope and the energy. Now it needs to channel that enthusiasm into strategies that can change the country.