Michael Gerson
Opinion writer November 7, 2011

At what point does a protest movement become an excuse for camping? At what point is utopianism discredited by the seedy, dangerous, derelict fun fair it creates? At what point do the excesses of a movement become so prevalent that they can reasonably be called its essence? At what point do Democratic politicians need to repudiate a form of idealism that makes use of Molotov cocktails?

The emergence of Occupy Wall Street raised Democratic hopes for the emergence of a leftist equivalent to the Tea Party movement. The comparison is now laughable. Set aside, for a moment, the reports of sexual assault in Zuccotti Park and the penchant for public urination. Tea Party activists may hate politicians, but they venerate American political institutions. Veneration does not always involve understanding. But the Tea Party’s goal is democratic influence.

Michael Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Post. View Archive

On its tie-dyed surface, the OWS movement seems little more than a confused collection of grievances. Some in New York protest the Church of Scientology. In Philadelphia, protesters attempted to occupy the cable provider Comcast. In Boston, they marched against the Israeli consulate, chanting, “Long live the intifada!” Protesters also targeted the Harvard Club. One imagines tweedy pipe smokers looking up in alarm from the latest copy of the New Republic to see a tumbrel outside the window.

But there is some ideological coherence within OWS. Its collectivist people’s councils seem to have two main inspirations: socialism (often Marxist socialism) and anarchism. The two are sometimes in tension. They share, however, a belief that the capitalist system is a form of “institutionalized violence,” and that normal, democratic political methods, dominated by monied interests, are inadequate. Direct action is necessary to provoke the crisis that ignites the struggle that achieves the revolution.

And we are beginning to see what direct action means. Occupy DC protesters recently assaulted a conservative gathering, then took over a public intersection to prevent the passage of luxury cars. Blocking the path of one driver and his 2-year-old son, an activist shouted, “Sorry, but you have no power right now.” That is the opposite of participatory democracy — the use of power to intimidate a fellow citizen on a public street. It is the method of British soccer thugs.

In Oakland, protesters have been playing at the Paris Commune — constructing barricades, setting fires, throwing concrete blocks and explosives, declaring a general strike to stop the “flow of capital” at the port. Here, OWS seems to be taking its cues from both “Rules for Radicals” and “A Clockwork Orange.”

Defenders of OWS dismiss this as the work of a few bad apples. But the transgressors would call themselves the vanguard. And they express, not betray, a significant ideological strain within the movement. Since the 1960s, some on the political left have sought liberal reform through the democratic process and nonviolent protest. Others have sought to hasten the crisis and collapse of fundamentally illegitimate social and economic systems. Both groups can be found within OWS, but the latter is ascendant.

OWS has, in fact, provoked a crisis of credibility for many American institutions. News coverage of the movement has been both disproportionate and fawning. The two encampments of Occupy DC, for example, have a couple of hundred inhabitants. If they moved to a nearby convention hotel, the group would probably be smaller than a meeting of the American Apparel and Footwear Association. During the Tea Party’s rise to national attention, the press scoured the country for any hint of rhetorical incitement to violence. OWS protesters smash windows, assault police officers and wear Guy Fawkes masks — a historical figure known for attempting to bomb the British Parliament.

City governments have also begun to look hapless for their accommodation of squalor, robberies, sexual attacks, drug use, vagrancy and vigilantism.

And what must Democratic leaders — who rushed to identify with a protean political force — now be thinking? OWS is not a seminar on income inequality — not the Center for American Progress on a camping trip. It is a leftist movement with a militant wing.

Will Americans, looking for jobs, turn in hope to the vandalization of small businesses and the promise of a general strike? Will citizens, disappointed by a dysfunctional government, be impressed by the endless arguments of anarchist collectives? Will people, disgusted by partisanship and rhetorical rock-throwing, be attracted to actual rock throwing?

This seems to be the desperate political calculation of the Democratic Party. Good luck with that.

michaelgerson@washpost.com