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.

28 thoughts on “FOLLOW MY LEAD”

  • Well, the Founding Fathers are partly to blame. They were actively working against a perception of Europe (France in particular) as crowded, dirty, and susceptible to occasional acts of mob rule/violence.

    But no doubt Nixon and the Republicans "won" the culture wars of the 1960's and managed to paint dissent as inherently un-American.

  • Middle Seaman says:

    We have only three problems:
    1. We are all Obama the spineless – "I quietly and obediently accept whatever the system does to me."
    2. Facts are not factual – "why all these dirty hippie protesters won't grow up and get jobs?"
    3. Strong case of amnesia – the Repubs victory in 2010.

    We are number ONE.

  • It serves the "conservatives" to keep regular folks angry at their situation, because the anger fuels action, such as voting for more "conservatives" with platforms which aim to "pay back" the folks who won't get jobs because there aren't any. Then there's the "but we already pay all the taxes" sleight of hand, which serves to make victims of the people who are making all the money. The "plain folks" then sympathize with the fortunate 1%, who already pay all the taxes yet are still being pilloried for being selfish. No one notices, perhaps because of their anger, that "all the taxes" is an ambiguity, and in the victim sense would be true if in fact the 1%'s tax rates were at .01%–since people with no money cannot pay taxes. Yet. Mr. Cain works diligently on that problem, and will come up with a solution no doubt.

  • Americans tend to attack demonstrations on aesthetic grounds. Witness the legs of a story about an OWS protestor defecating on a police car, a story repeated in the comments section of Eugene Robinson's column in favor of the movement. Defecating, urinating? These were the charges leveled at the demonstrators by WaPo readers in an attempt to discredit them. I traced the specific charge re: a police car to a highly suspicious photograph in a London tabloid:

    Not sure whether Limbaugh or some other smear merchant gave the story a big bump over here, but it certainly traveled far and wide (vide Twain: "a lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its pants"), and I daresay had the greatest impact here. Our NYC demonstrators didn't break any windows or incinerate any cars, but their hygiene! Heavens, there's evidence that they relieve themselves in public!

    Demonstrations are messy, in more ways than one. Americans love [the illusion of] neatness and order, maybe more even than Germans.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    It's called "Divide and Conquor," and it's worked since the first hominid tried it.

    Basically, I think it is psychological.
    Rather than help lift everyone up, so we can be equal, we want someone to be worse off than we are, so we can be superior.
    We'd rather rule in Hell than serve in Heaven – and this is especially true of Conservatives.

  • I spent a disproportionate amount of time this weekend slamming someone who posted one of those "I earned my way through college by the sweat of my brow, 53%" bullshit posters onto her facebook status. We need to stop buying into the idea we're being fed that the disadvantaged/unemployed/working poor bring their plight on themselves, and we need to start understanding – REALLY understanding – that nearly ALL of us are one layoff and one bad diagnosis away from ruin. I continue to be amazed by the smugness of people who think they're secure; they have NO idea how precarious their lives really are.

  • I've noticed the same thing. All the conservatives I know have this mindset that "fairness" all about taking things AWAY from people who have more than they do, rather than bringing others UP to the same level.

    I'm no psychologist, but the best I can figure is that if they were to think differently, i.e., come to the conclusion that they've been screwed, it would make them feel like epic idiots for going along with it for as long as they did – so they just can't bring themselves to face that conclusion.

    What I mean is, say you've spent your whole life clawing your way through school/competing against the other kids, then clawing for a (shitty) job and clawing your way up (only to find there isn't much "up" for you), probably working a second job, being a sychophant to those above you, and all the while barely getting by, ruining your health because of the stress and the lack of health care, unable to give your kids much bette opportunities, etc….

    And then someone comes along and says "Dude, the system is BROKEN, it's screwing all of us, help us fight the system so we can all live better!"

    What the conservative mind hears, I think, is an implied, "Dude, you've been a total dupe your whole life, buying into this crap! The system totally fucked you, and you've just suffered and bought into it! We don't want to be a miserable suffering idiot like you – we have enough self-esteem to think we deserve better, and want you to help us fight for something better – so we don't wind up like you!" That may not be what's SAID, but I think it's what's HEARD.

    The emotinal reaction, I think, is something like "If I agree with this, it means that I've been a total dupe my whole life, and bought into a system where people exploited me and I went along and ruined/wasted my life being miserable. I can't face that thought!!!! Therefore, the problem must be these dirty, entitled hippies wanting more than they deserve. Fuck them!"

  • It's just one more flavor of the standard American Right model: facts are meaningless, the only thing that matters is What I Know From Common Sense™.

    My father continues to bash public schools and "government handouts" every chance he gets, despite the fact that his son is more successful than him *because* of public schools and federal scholarships (handouts).

    And so it is here. Facts are irrelevant, listen to the almighty, all-knowing Gut.

    If you've not read "Idiot America", I highly recommend it.

  • I have a coworker who watches Fox News all the time and just repeats whatever the manufactured outrage of the week is.

    I saw him the other day and got the hear the "Tea Party = concerned patriots, OWS = dirty fucking hippies" line.

  • I'm a USAF vet who went to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Korea, and Okinawa. I worked in tech support for a credit bureau for 3 years after I got out, and for a year of that time I was also going to school full time. My wife works full time as a registered nurse. We were making $650/month in student loan payments on over $60,000 in student loan debt she had. I'm currently a civilian contractor working for the military in Afghanistan for a year, in order to get her student loans paid off. I work 12 hours a day 7 days a week. We make plenty of money, we're not drowning in debt, our credit cards are all paid off, and we both have good-paying jobs with health benefits.

    And I don't think anybody else should have to do what I did. For one, not everybody is physically capable of this. Nobody should have to hope there's a war they can fight in to pay their bills. Nobody should have to work full time and go to school full time, and a lot of people just can't handle that. If I'm stronger than my brothers, I have all the more responsibility to help them. I think college should be much lower cost, or even free, and I say that as someone who has free college courtesy of my military service and the post 9/11 GI Bill. People should be able to go to the doctor without having to wait for payday so they can afford it. And I say that as someone with a variety of medical care options. Our combined pay in 2010 was enough to put us in the top 20% of the country, we pay federal taxes, and that doesn't change the fact that life is really shitty for a whole lot of Americans who aren't as fortunate as me or my wife.

    I am the 99%. If you're not in the owner class, you are also in the 99%.

  • Are the blog posts and the commenters assertions based on any kind of polling? I work with generally right-leaning coworkers and they seem to have a lot of sympathy for the complaints of OWS, although they do criticize the lack of understanding of banking and the financial bailouts shown by the protestors. But there is sympathy there, which I also see reflected in the right-wing blogs I read (check out the Karl Denninger post on a Florida protest as an example). So I don't see what the foaming at the mouth here is about or whether its the usual Gin & Tacos thought-free stress release.

    I think OWS – as well as the related Tea Party movement – have elicited positive reactions on the part of many. The issue is what in fact can be done to rectify the problems – and there is where the problem lies.

  • John –
    Agree with much of your post. "I think college should be much lower cost.."

    So how much longer is the thoroughly corrupt higher education complex – with its mouth fed by yet another government intervention (a forced guarantee of unsecured loans for post-HS educational purposes on the backs of a struggling population in their 20s and 30s) – going to escape the wrath of the protestors?

  • It is psychological – many people want to identify with what our society has proffered as the "appropriate citizen": the clean-cut, hard-working American that does what he's told and doesn't cause trouble. These folks want to identify with the 1%, that they are – or more correctly – WILL BE – like them. They want to be part of the team, they want to be seen and recognized as one of the "appropriate citizens" so that they can stand on the "right" side and sneer at those who would dare upset the "way of things". People are afraid to stand up. And the more CCD cameras are installed on street corners, the more stories about tasers, the more one-stoplight towns roll out their DHS-funded vehicles and associated hardware, the more they seek to be one of the "appropriate citizens".

  • Why not join a demonstration? Asking myself this question, I didn't like the answer I got. It's fear. Fear of appearing to be a weak, powerless, ineffective ass.

    Now rioting, I could definitely get into that. Which is something also to be feared.

    Sissy or nutcase – would meds help, ya think?

  • There was a large peace march in PDX on Saturday, which touched on the OWS themes and the 'we are the 99%' theme. I think a lot of the people marching were people whose sympathies lie with the OWS (or Occupy Portland-ers), but who have jobs taking us away from the day-to-day camping out demonstration.

    I read the AP report on the protests 'around the country' the following day. Local estimates had us at 3k-4k strong, but no word on that from the AP (or Reuters, or Washington Post). Maybe that's changed by now, but the largest protest they mentioned was the one in Pittsburgh, estimated at 1500-2000. Apparently, keeping the estimates low keeps the protesters on the fringe. And the MSM's slant, against the accepted narrative, is clearly not to the left.

    I have to admit, though, that considering the occasional extreme sign that I saw, with which I didn't agree, that I actually gained some empathy for the saner elements of the Tea Party. If you only focus on the more extreme signs, we'd look pretty extreme. Never having been to a tea party rally, I wonder how much of the Hitler-mustachioed-Obama was the norm versus the outliers. I may not agree with the Tea Partiers about, well, just about anythinig, but maybe they aren't as crazy as I once thought.

    But the we-are-the-53%-ers are by-and-large delusional chumps being swayed by their masters to be divided from the rest of us… divide and conquer, anyone?

  • Whenever I hear/read the term Founding Fathers, I immediately burst into flames.

    Now, I will go finish reading the rest of the comments.

  • Living lives of quiet desperation and then obediently blaming the economic malaise on the banks instead of on the ones who enabled (not to say compelled!) the banks to act the way they did, I prefer Thoreau's other appropriate quote: 'I heartily accept the motto, "That government is best which governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically.'

  • "Americans are so enamored of equality that they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom. (..)

    "In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them."

    Alexis deTocqueville, "Democracy In America," 2nd Ed., 1840

Comments are closed.