Whereas the Tea Party movement of 2009-10, lubricated by big money from the Koch brothers and others, took over the Republican Party, Occupy disdained establishment politics. “At its core,” Levitin writes, “it was a movement constrained by its own contradictions: filled with leaders who declared themselves leaderless, governed by a consensus-based structure that failed to reach consensus, seeking to transform politics while refusing to become political.” It was, Levitin concludes, “colorful and chaotic, inspiring and self-defeating.”
But whatever its early animus toward electoral politics, Occupy — and its fellow travelers — set off a convulsion in the Democratic Party that brought President Obama to call inequality “the defining issue of our time.” It gave Elizabeth Warren a platform for her egalitarian reforms and, most consequentially, ushered in Bernie Sanders’s campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 and 2020, moving the party’s center leftward and exerting pressure on the putatively moderate nominee Joe Biden. (In the cheeky but accurate words of Felicia Wong, president and chief executive of the progressive Roosevelt Institute, Biden turned out to be “so old … he’s actually pre-neoliberal.”)
“Sanders crystallized the intangible demands that Occupy had put forward but failed to structure in the litany of accusations against the 1 percent,” Levitin writes. For example, Occupy’s Strike Debt spinoff became the template for Sanders’s 2017 proposal to make public universities free, which in turn evolved into Biden’s more modest but still significant proposal for community colleges.
Levitin’s enthusiasm is infectious, if at times extravagant. Like many journalists on the left, he suggests that Democratic progressives were the big winners in the two recent congressional general elections, whereas the consensus among analysts and academics is that in 2018 moderates did better than progressives in swing districts. (Of course, it’s also true that those moderates were more progressive than the moderates who won earlier elections.) He probably exaggerates Occupy’s impact on the Women’s March of 2017, on the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter in 2020, though the precedent of getting lots of people into the streets surely stirred the imagination of many post-2011 activists who would not rush to sleep in parks. He credits the Spanish Podemos party, a derivative of Madrid’s 2011 Indignados movement (which predated Occupy Wall Street by several months), with more political impact than it had, and slides over its authoritarian tendencies with an easy phrase: “missteps and intraparty conflicts.” However radical, policy programs like the Green New Deal will not, as he claims, “drive free-market capitalism out of business.”
As for the future? To steal a phrase from the comedian Mort Sahl, it lies ahead. Anyone looking for assurances of where our national upheavals are heading will need a clearer crystal ball than mine. But it is no exaggeration to say that Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots changed a good deal more of the landscape than Zuccotti Park’s three-quarters of an acre in New York’s financial district.