One of the enjoyable things about politics is that it has the capacity to surprise us. Despite being largely predictable, occasionally something happens out of left field. Take the unexpected Republican support for the Occupy Wall Street protesters. John Boehner, House Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, and Floridian Steve Southerland joined the chorus in demanding to know why unemployment persists. Their message is simple: Where are the jobs? We all need a good answer to that question.
I'm sorry, I'm mixed up. Boehner, McCarthy, and Southerland said that stuff 2 months ago, when they were trying to pin the bad economy on Obama. They were very insistent that an insufficient number of jobs exist to handle the current unemployment rolls. Now, of course, they're wondering why all these dirty hippie protesters won't grow up and get jobs. In an eight week span the GOP message has transitioned from "Where are the jobs, Mr. President?" to "Why don't you all go get jobs?" Only the American right could make sense of that.
The funny thing is that conservatives mirror a lot of the American public when they hold these two diametrically opposed viewpoints. The vast majority of us demand a more robust economy and realize that the banking/financial system is fundamentally flawed. Yet we also can't shake that ingrained Horatio Alger logic, the kind that leads us to conclude that any individual who fails to find gainful employment has only him/herself to blame. Thus we sound schizophrenic, as usual. The system is broken! More personal responsibility! The banks are screwing us! Pull up your own bootstraps!
Public opinion has always reflected a very strange attitude in this country toward movements – public protests, strikes, etc. – compared to other countries in which such displays of social-political displeasure are more common parts of public life. Even when Americans support protesters' goals, we still have all sorts of negative reactions to protesters themselves. This manifests itself in one of two different ways. One is calls for gradualism (i.e., the civil rights movement) and patience with the existing power structure. The other is outright hostility toward protesters, as we've seen during Vietnam, WTO/G7 type protests, and so on. We might want to see some change, but gosh we sure don't want to break any rules and we can't stand those dirty kids with their dreadlocks and bong smoke.
On the most basic level, this reflects a convincing victory for conservatism in the war for hearts and minds. We might realize that those Occupy Wall Street folks are right, but we're still more likely to be hostile than sympathetic. Why? Take a look at any of the "We are the 53%" crap and you'll see. It's a bunch of people with a consistent message: My life blows, so yours should too. I work two jobs, so I resent people who want to work one. I am grateful for the crumbs that fall to me in this system, so people who complain about it are assholes. I quietly and obediently accept whatever the system does to me, so why don't you?
It takes a special kind of self loathing to generate a reaction like this. Fortunately Americans have that in spades. So many of us have completely given up, surrendered, and chosen that life of quiet desperation that it's unsurprising when more anger is targeted at people who stray from the flock than at more appropriate targets. We're content to direct our anger at one another because we've been convinced that change is impossible and encouraged to blame ourselves for whatever problems we have. The biggest obstacle confronting social and political movements is neither social nor political, but psychological. The first and most difficult step is to silence the voice in people's heads that whispers, "Nothing will change, so stay home, keep quiet, and obey" when they see a few villagers taking to the streets with torches.