Even the liberal 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.

13 Responses to Even the liberal New Republic opposes Occupy Wall Street: What does that mean?

  1. Sebastian October 12, 2011 at 9:11 pm #

    I think the explanation is simpler – TNR prides itself for its hippie punching tradition. Read Chait’s goodbye letter on his TNR blog:

    I became enchanted, even obsessed, with this funny, whip-smart magazine that identified as liberal, and understood this to mean opposition to the conservatism that was beginning to dominate our national life as well as the left-wing orthodoxies predominating in small pockets of it.

    This tradition goes back to the Vietnam era, and amplified when Peretz bought the magazine. So I think this is very much TNR in line with its history.

  2. Tybalt October 12, 2011 at 9:32 pm #

    I am sick and f***ing tired of people complaining that the protesters aren’t talking about what they want them to talk about. If you (the Prufrocks at TNR, or anyone else) want to protest something else, go to it. But don’t f***ing whine about how they should be doing your work for you.

    For a political theory that is ostensibly about free will and free choice, liberals really only seem good at telling other people what to do.

  3. A Conservative Teacher October 12, 2011 at 10:42 pm #

    Tybalt, that is one of the most accurate observations about liberals that I have read on the internet… they do seem only to care about telling other people what to do- get a healthcare plan, don’t buy this product, don’t drill here, give someone something they didn’t earn- and they almost never now talk about freedom and liberty. Not that the GOP does either, but at least they’re bad at actually implementing the kind of tyranny that the Democrats are jamming down on America.

  4. jeff October 12, 2011 at 11:58 pm #

    the title of this post was consciously made in light of the “even the liberal TNR” meme, and not accidentally, right? right?

  5. Procopius October 13, 2011 at 3:34 am #

    Actually, lots of people are to Obama’s left, but they’re mostly ignored by the MSM. Alan Grayson is to his left. So’s Elizabeth Warren. For some reason the real centrists are simply ignored whole people like Ben Nelson are called “centrist” or “moderate.” I agree, though, that until recently the lack of a far left has been a problem; I think one of the reasons the 1% feel free to make such a naked grab for economic and political power. Maybe we’re going to see a real, quiet grass roots movement slowly develop to educate the idiots who vote for people like Eric Cantor and Michelle Bachmann. By the way, only in America would TNR be considered liberal. In any sane society they would be seen for the center-rightists they really are.

  6. Sebastian October 13, 2011 at 12:29 pm #

    Also, while TNRs editorial boad (who is that?) opposes OWS, its three most prominent writes – Tim Noah, Jon Cohn, and John Judis have all written favorable posts:
    http://www.tnr.com/blog/timothy-noah/96216/about-those-protests
    has links to the other two. So I think the politics might be more between the old-grey Harvard elitists on the editorial board and the less-old, not-grey, less elitist, though I guess mostly also Harvard authors. Isn’t that common at the WaPo, too?

    • Andrew Gelman October 13, 2011 at 4:58 pm #

      Ugh, the Washington Post! Don’t get me started . . .

  7. Cosma Shalizi October 13, 2011 at 5:19 pm #

    Why on Earth, I wonder, might a political magazine owned by a small number of extremely wealthy and privileged men (several, if memory serves, from out of Lazard) find something amiss with a political movement that would like to curb the privileges of the rich, especially financiers? Truly, it is a mystery.

    • Andrew Gelman October 13, 2011 at 6:28 pm #

      Sure, but it’s not so simple as all that. For one thing, the New Republic is liberal, not conservative (hence its unofficial nickname, Even the Liberal New Republic), and U.S. liberals generally support higher taxes on the rich. For another thing, the New Republic supported Obama in 2008 (I assume) and will do so again in 2012 (I expect). So they may be extremely wealthy but they are not ideologically opposed to high taxes on the rich.

      • Cosma Shalizi October 13, 2011 at 9:42 pm #

        But they have that name because, since the 1980s, they have traded on their liberal reputation from former times to be a reliable source of support for right-wing positions, with the twist of giving a contrarian, counter-intuitive reason why liberals should support it. (The case was put well, if rudely, by Kathy G. a few years ago.) So not only are they talking their owners’ book in this case, but being objectively reactionary (you should excuse the expression) is standard operating procedure.

        • Andrew Gelman October 13, 2011 at 10:51 pm #

          I dunno. If they were really conservative, they’d be writing for the Weekly Standard etc. I think they’re conflicted.

  8. Chaz October 13, 2011 at 6:49 pm #

    The Tea Party got massive support from establishment media, primarily Fox News, but I think NRO and Weekly Standard got on board. The Fox News connection has diminished its credibility among liberals (which doesn’t really concern them I bet), but it also gave them mountains of publicity. That publicity gave them right-wing and some mainstream credibility as well. So I think on net the establishment media support gave the Tea Party a big boost. Another thing they did was focus (dictate) the Tea Party’s message, which helped Fox a lot and the protesters some in getting their flavor of right-wingers elected.

    Based on that I think heavy media promotion would benefit Occupy Wall St.’s goals by getting them attention and giving them a positive spin. I think the loss of outsider credibility would be made up for by the gain of thoughtful and serious credibility (the stuff Krugman hates) that mainstream promotion provides. As long as they stay strongly left-wing and don’t have senators leading their events they would still fulfill the Overton window-stretching and far-left bogeyman roles.

    Of course, TNR does not have the juice that Fox does. Nor do they have much popularity with the far left. If TNR tried to guide or speak for OWS they would surely fail. So maybe you’re right that an endorsement from TNR specifically would just muddy things up.

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