Critics of Occupy Wall Street have a transparent objective: They want to persuade blue collar whites and ordinary middle class Americans to turn on the movement for cultural reasons — because its optics offend these voters’ cultural instincts — even if they broadly agree with its general principles and critique of what’s gone wrong.
Former Clinton pollster Doug Schoen made a big splash this morning with an Op ed in the Wall Street Journal warning darkly that Obama and Dems embrace the wild-eyed radical Occupy Wall Street protesters at their extreme peril.
Schoen’s piece, which attracted widespread media attention, argued that Occupy Wall Street “reflects values that are dangerously out of touch with the broad mass of the American people.” He added that the protesters “are bound by a deep commitment to radical left-wing policies” and comprise “an unrepresentative segment of the electorate that believes in radical redistribution of wealth, civil disobedience and, in some instances, violence.”
Except that Schoen’s own poll doesn’t show this at all. Azi Paybayrah obtained the internals of the poll from Schoen, and it contains these radical findings: Only six percent say “income inequality” is what frustrates them most about the political process. Only four percent of protestors want the movement to achieve “radical redistribution of wealth,” while 35 percent want it to emulate the Tea Party by exerting more influence on the Democratic Party. It finds that a huge majority wants tax hikes on the rich, but so do other polls. It finds strong support for more regulation, but Wall Street reform is also supported by majorities. The poll finds that less than a third would be prepared to resort to violence — and over two thirds wouldn’t.
Putting aside whether this poll should even be seen as representative at all, it portrays a movement that seems to want to work within the system to achieve change that isn’t all that radical after all.
But there’s a larger story here beyond Schoen’s seeming misrepresentation of his own polling to portray the movement as radical and politically dangerous. There are two separate questions that it’s important not to conflate. First: Are Occupy Wall Street’s views — its general version of what went wrong and its overall critique of the American system — out of touch with the mainstream? The early returns suggest they simply aren’t. Nate Silver rightly argues that its hard to answer this question, because the movement hasn’t settled on articulated goals, and that things could change once it does. But for now, Occupy Wall Street’s basic animating principles and broadly understood goals seem generally in sync with the left leaning portion of the mainstream.
The second, separate question is: Do the optics and tactics of Occupy Wall Street risk alienating blue collar whites, independents, and ordinary middle class Americans who might otherwise be sympathetic to its message? The cultural fault line between these voters and middle class liberal activists who resort to outsized tactics to achieve change is a well established storyline in American history, so anything can happen. But for now, there's simply no evidence that it has. A labor organizer yesterday told me the opposite is happpening, though that evidence is also anecdotal
The key thing here is that critiques like Schoen’s are designed to get people to conflate those two questions. They are designed to make the prediction that mainstream Americans will be repulsed by Occupy Wall Street into a self fulfilling prophesy. The exploitation of these cultural tensions is also an old story, one perhaps best documented in Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland. By painting the movement as scary and radical, critics hope to bring about a cultural reaction against it by focusing attention on its radical aura, its radical-seeming optics and tactics, rather than on what it actually stands for. That’s the game here.
UPDATE: Nate Silver emails over some analysis on why he thinks Schoen misrepresented his own data:
He writes that the priorities of the protesters are “opposition to free-market capitalism and support for radical redistribution of wealth, intense regulation of the private sector, and protectionist policies to keep American jobs from going overseas”. But his poll finds their top priories are reducing corporate/elite influence, partisanship, and joblessness.
Now, priorities like “partisanship” and “corporate influence” are extremely vague. If the pollsters identified more specific demands — or if Schoen had asked them about specific policy proposals — it wouldn’t surprise me at all if you found a few that were pretty far outside the mainstream, along with others that were well within the mainstream or even fairly popular (Wall Street regulation in general polls pretty well).
But Schoen didn’t ask those questions, so all of this is just speculation.