What the Occupy Movement Could Learn From Paul Ryan

Jay Heisler

Paul Ryan

By the time a presidential candidate is chosen, we’re already sick of them. They’ve fought a long and bloody battle against a handful of vicious contenders in the Primaries, and the media has been saturated with every possible angle on their personal character and previous career decisions.

And then they pick a VP-to-be, and the exact opposite happens. Particularly if the person—like Sarah Palin—is plucked from relative obscurity, they go from being occasionally mentioned in a spirit of baseless speculation to suddenly and temporarily being the centre of the media universe.

Well, now every single thing that every single person could possibly say about Paul Ryan is all being said, all at once. There’s even a buzz online about his apparent inability to wear properly fitting suits—countering the usually fair criticism that female politicians are insultingly singled out for their fashion choices.

Occupy Movement

Remember Occupy Wall Street?

So what’s left to say? Well, while we’re on the subject of Paul Ryan, how’s about those local Occupy Movement protesters? Yes, you read that right. The vast forest of tents that currently cover your city’s financial district, full of bright and idealistic young people pushing for a more fair and equitable financial system. The ones inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement to create a permanent change in the global capitalist order. How’s that going for them?


You can say what you want about the Tea Party. That it was a cynically manufactured scheme to mobilize the farthest extremes of the Republican base, carefully orchestrated by right wing media hacks and a handful of politically active billionaires. That its followers tend to believe easily disprovable falsehoods and outrageous conspiracy theories, subtly encouraged by these same media hacks with the gleeful complicity of mainstream Republicans. That the politicians that this wave swept into power led us to a disastrously gridlocked Congress that has seriously shaken the global view of the stability of America’s political process.

You can say that about the Tea Party if you want, but you’re missing the point. The only point that matters in the shark tank realpolitik world that we live in is this: It worked. They got what they wanted. The architects of the Tea Party movement ended up stalling or permanently freezing Obama’s already meagre plans for reform. They took way, way too much of Congress and the Senate. And now they have one of their own as a potential VP, the ultimate validation of their ideology among the Republican establishment.

Occupy MovementThe Death of the Occupy Movement

And what about the Occupy Movement? Its foot soldiers have long since gone home and carried on with their lives. Its architects have gone back to the obscurity of various counterculture publications and activist circles.

Yes, it is true that one side had all the money and all the media might and an army of pre-established political allies lurking just outside of the mainstream. The other side had cardboard signs and some momentum from the fact that protests were fashionable that year. The Occupy Movement’s only real cheerleaders in the media were international, including a hilariously enthusiastic volley of coverage from Russia Today—a branch of Russia’s state propaganda arm that used the protests and the occasionally violent police response to embarrass the US and muddy any Western criticism of their own human rights record.

Tea Party ProtestEverything in Moderation

If the Occupy Movement had been serious about creating real and plausible change, it would have had plenty of mainstream allies at home. All it had to do was work within the system. By avoiding anti-capitalist rhetoric and working with the political centre—as was so skilfully accomplished during the protests against the Iraq War—a real movement that created real economic change could have been born. Paul Krugman, Jeffery Sachs, and Warren Buffet would likely have championed such a cause, among many, many others. A moderate movement based in the substantial population of political liberals could have swept over American politics and genuinely changed US policy for the better.

But that’s not what the Occupy Movement did, because that’s not what its radicalized core wanted to do. If my years of pre-disillusionment experience in various activist communities taught me anything, its that the mindset of such circles creates a toxic resistance to any real attempts to improve the system or save it from falling into truly dangerous hands. And as such these movements have become a fashion statement, a useless ideological exercise that’s replaced the hollow rhetoric of Cold War-era Marxism with an antagonistic form of post-modern anarchism that can list a million problems but no plausible solutions.

Tea PartyLearning from the Best: The Tea Party

Here’s a solution: progressives should create their own version of the Tea Party—because the Occupy Movement was certainly not that. A movement that appeals to those who already vote Democrat, but still draws in those from the progressive fringe, could make real waves in American politics and create real change. First, by keeping Democrats in the White House. Then by giving them back control of Congress. And then, most importantly, by ensuring that they actually do what we want them to do—reel in Wall Street and raise taxes on the top 1%.

At the end of the day, that’s all that really matters about the Tea Party, and Paul Ryan too—their commitment to upholding the financial interests of their wealthy patrons. Their policy suggestions range from lunatic to vague on every issue but that one. Their stance on social issues flies in the face of their libertarian roots in a cynical attempt to win votes. Most of their pre-election rhetoric and most of their actions in office are geared toward gaining power and undermining the Democrats more than the fulfilment of their stated ideology. The only policy that we know for a fact they’ll commit to when in power is the one that caused wealthy donors to invest so much in the Tea Party in the first place. The prioritization of upper class financial interests over the interests of the middle and lower classes.

That’s something to get mad about. It’s something to get revolutionary about. But don’t, like the Occupy Movement, look to Tahrir Square for tips on how to create that revolution at home. That didn’t exactly work out well. Look to the Tea Party instead. They aren’t the good guys, but when it comes to getting power they’re good at what they do.