Dish blogger Andrew Sullivan has come around to the ”goddamn hippies” at Occupy Wall Street. “Maybe it was seeing a more diverse crowd in D.C. than I expected, or absorbing online testimonies from 99%-ers, or reading yet another story about how corrupt the banking system has become (Citigroup was the latest to have me fuming),” he writes. But it happened. And oddly, it’s made him think more fondly of the Tea Party as well.
The theme that connects them all is disenfranchisement, the sense that the world is shifting deeply and inexorably beyond our ability to control it through our democratic institutions. You can call this many things, but a “democratic deficit” gets to the nub of it. Democracy means rule by the people—however rough-edged, however blunted by representative government, however imperfect. But everywhere, the people feel as if someone else is now ruling them—and see no way to regain control. In Europe, you see millions unemployed because of a financial crisis that began thousands of miles away in the U.S. real-estate market—and grim austerity being imposed to save a currency union that never truly won mass democratic support in the first place. In the U.S., the hefty majority for sweeping reform behind Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 has been stopped in its tracks by slightly more than half of one House in the Congress and by a historically unprecedented filibuster in the Senate. Even when it is perfectly clear what the only politically viable, long-term solution is to our debt crisis—a mix of defense and entitlement cuts and tax increases—it is beyond our democratically elected leaders to reach a deal. In fact, one major party has gone on record declaring that it would risk national default rather than cede a millimeter on taxes. The Tea Partiers too are revolting against a Republican establishment that overspent and overborrowed throughout the Bush-Cheney years, and treated principled conservative critics as traitors or irrelevant. Bush and Cheney also failed to do what any viable government must: secure the border so that it can recognize who is a citizen and who is not. Members of the Tea Party too feel disenfranchised and alienated—from a popular culture that seems hostile to traditional ways of life to a political system so in hock to special interests that pork and partisanship triumph over sane budgeting time after time after time.
You can ignore much of this if the economy is generating enough jobs and sufficient dynamism to distract attention. That’s why Dancing With the Stars exists. But after the deepest recession since the 1930s, the patience runs out. That, it seems to me, is the core of what has been happening. The global public, more aware than ever of what is going on in the world, and more able than ever before to share ideas, facts, experiences, and testimonies, is acutely sensitive to the vested interests of the powerful who stand in the way of their dreams. In recent years they have risen up outside the box of conventional politics. In 2008 vast new numbers of Americans transformed the political process through social media and small-donor fundraising, electing a rank outsider, Obama, who challenged the natural heirs to the old system, the Clintons. The next year Iranians, empowered by the same technologies, called their own leaders’ electoral bluff and nearly changed the world. This year the very same empowerment gave us the Arab Spring. Even now, in Syria, after unimaginable intimidation and brute violence, thousands still manage to protest in the streets—at night if they have to. More obscured, but just as tenacious, public demonstrations in China have rattled the government. Even the Burmese junta recently gave in to public pressure and scrapped a major dam development.