As I noted earlier, the left blogosphere is in an uncomfortable spot, having cheered the Occupy Wall Street movement. Now that we’ve seen that it’s pretty much what conservatives said it was — lawless, violent, filthy and politically unserious — most on the left have fallen silent.
I give my colleague Greg Sargent, who strenuously urged that we take OWS seriously, credit for taking a stab at rehabilitating the movement, just as the New York mayor tried to clear out Zuccotti Park (despite the efforts of a New York court). Greg argues:
Whatever happens to the Occupy Wall Street movement — now that cops swept protesters out of their headquarters in a surprise early morning raid — let’s not allow ourselves to forget that it has already accomplished a key objective. The protests have helped inspire the most serious and sustained national conversation about inequality we’ve seen in a long time, and refocused our politics on economic fairness and elite lack of accountability, in ways that are already reshaping assumptions about the upcoming elections and could perhaps even contain the seeds of longer-term change.
But is that accurate as a factual matter? Frankly, we’ve been having this national debate for years. Recall the 2010 election in which Obama railed against the secretive monied interests supposedly hijacking our democracy. Recall the Senate votes staged before the election to try to paint Republicans as the defender of millionaires.
We saw this battle most intensely following the president’s extension of the Bush tax cuts in 2010 and in a series of speeches throughout the year by the president and rebuttals from his opponents on what the left calls “fairness” and the right calls “class warfare.”
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in his rebuttal to the State of the Union address and repeatedly thereafter has described the contours of the argument. In his remarks at the Heritage Foundation, Ryan took the president to task:
The President has been talking a lot about math lately. He’s been saying that “If we’re not willing to ask those who’ve done extraordinarily well to help America close the deficit … the math says … we’ve got to put the entire burden on the middle class and the poor.”
This is really a stunning assertion from the President. When you look at the actual math, you quickly realize that the way out of this mess is to combine economic growth with reasonable, responsible spending restraint. Yet neither of these things factors into the President’s zero-sum logic.
According to the President’s logic, we should give up on trying to reform our tax code to grow the economy and get more revenue that way. Instead, these goals are taking a backseat to the President’s misguided understanding of fairness. . . .
Also according to the President’s logic, spending restraint is incompatible with a strong, well-functioning safety net. The belief that recipients of government aid are better off the more we spend on them is remarkably persistent. No matter how many times this central tenet of liberalism gets debunked, like Brett Favre, it just keeps coming back.
The President has wrongly framed Republican efforts to get government spending under control as hard-hearted attacks on the poor
I really don’t think Ryan or Obama needed the Occupy movement to engage in this debate.
As Ryan pointed out in a recent interview with Esquire, the right and left have been engaged in a debate between two fundamental visions of America. Ryan explained that Obama takes a “Hegelian-Weber school of thought, which is that Congress should pass a lot of vague laws, and we should have a permanent class of elite bureaucrats, technocrats, to organize and micromanage the economy and society. And I just think he believes in redistribution. I think he believes the government’s role ought to be moved from protecting natural rights to promoting equal opportunity to sort of equalizing outcomes, equalizing results.” In contrast, conservatives, Ryan explained, reject the zero-sum game, which pits rich against poor:
Like my mentor, Jack Kemp, I don’t worry about people who are wealthy. I worry about making it easier for people to become wealthy who have never seen it before. That’s what I’m worried about. So I don’t see life as a zero-sum game. The economy is not a zero-sum system, in which someone’s gain necessarily comes at someone’s loss. Let’s pride ourselves on success. Let’s be excited about entrepreneurs. Let’s celebrate achievement and hard work and innovation and wealth creation. Let’s not demonize it. Let’s not divide it. So rather than speaking to people in class terms, rather than creating emotions of fear, envy, anxiety, and anger, let’s appeal to their aspirations. Let’s get opportunity into the pockets of poverty that haven’t seen it before. Let’s get a society of upward mobility and appeal to that.
Now do we really think the Occupy movement was a catalyst for this discussion? Do we think Obama wouldn’t have inveighed against those corporate jet owners, and Republicans would have rejected his brand of anti-Wall Street populism, if not for the encampments in American cities?
And more to the point, I wonder if the protesters’ unbridled contempt for public order and wealth creation is really a desirable model for the left’s discourse on income inequality. Frankly, if the left wants to appeal to middle-class Americans, it would be wise to repudiate a grab bag of sleazy characters who are disrupting the lives of working people and adding to the financial burden of cash-strapped cities. Now is no time to celebrate their “contribution” to American political dialogue.