Even the New Republic Opposes Occupy Wall Street: What Does That Mean?

The editors of the famed liberal magazine write:

How should liberals feel about Occupy Wall Street? . . . At first blush, it would be difficult not to cheer the protesters who have descended on lower Manhattan—and are massing in other cities across the United States—because they have chosen a deserving target. Wall Street should be protested. . . . But, to draw on the old cliché, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. . . .

One of the core differences between liberals and radicals is that liberals are capitalists. . . . it is just not the protesters’ apparent allergy to capitalism and suspicion of normal democratic politics that should raise concerns. It is also their temperament. The protests have made a big deal of the fact that they arrive at their decisions through a deliberative process. But all their talk of “general assemblies” and “communiqués” and “consensus” has an air of group-think about it that is, or should be, troubling to liberals [write the New Republic editors in a joint unsigned editorial]. . . .

These are not just substantive complaints. They also beg the strategic question of whether the protesters will help or hurt the cause of liberalism. After all, even if the protesters are not liberals themselves, isn’t it possible that they could play a constructive role in forcing Americans to pay attention to important issues such as inequality and crony capitalism? Perhaps. But we are hard-pressed to believe that most Americans will look at these protests, with their extreme anti-capitalist rhetoric, and conclude that the fate of the Dodd-Frank legislation—currently the best liberal hope for improving democratically regulated capitalism—is more crucial than they had previously thought.

It’s hard for me to know what to make of this article. We could just take it literally, as the sincere opinion of the center-left New Republic editors that the Occupy Wall Street movement is too anti-capitalist for them.

But I can also see a more strategic motivation. It goes like this. Liberals have been commenting for awhile that one sources of the difficulties of Obama and congressional Democrats is the lack of strong political forces to their left in American politics. The idea is that if you want center-left policies, you need some groups on the right keeping you sane, pulling you back toward the center, but also some groups to your left, pushing for more extreme positions that will allow you to split the difference. To put it another way, the hard left can scare the center into supporting the center-left. If you’re a business lobbying group, Barack Obama, Lawrence Summers, and Nancy Pelosi look pretty reasonable If the alternative is Occupy Wall Street. But if there is no left alternative, the right has no need to compromise. And, before Occupy Wall Street came around, who was to the left of Obama and Pelosi? There was Michael Moore, Paul Krugman, and . . . well, that’s about it, actually. And Michael Moore doesn’t really count for much.

OK, now back to the editors of the liberal New Republic. Sure, they might very well find Occupy Wall Street a bit too anti-capitalist for their taste—-but I wonder if something more might be going on. They might value Occupy Wall Street for its role in pulling the political debate to the left—-but maybe the New Republic editors don’t want to admit it! Maybe an embrace by the New Republic would dilute Occupy Wall Street’s street-cred. Instead, better for them to keep the organization at arm’s length while hoping it has the desired influence.

Just to be clear: I’m not suggesting that the New Republic editors are engaging in a sinister plot. Rather, I suspect their editorial line derives, consciously or unconsciously, from a mixture of the two motivations listed above: the editors dislike the Occupy Wall Streeters as being unserious hippy types, and they suspect that the organization will more effectively advance the goals of centrist Democrats by being outsiders.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.