Occupy Wall Street and the Return of Law and Order Politics

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As city after city confronts Occupy protestors, conservatives are trying to make civil unrest into an anti-Obama campaign issue

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As Occupiers from Oakland and Atlanta to New York City and Washington, D.C., have proven themselves both too powerless to prevent the encroachment of crime in their encampments and powerful enough to repeatedly confront police, the president's fiercest critics on the right are uniting around a potentially powerful new election-year theme: Barack Obama can't preserve law and order.

Critics of the conservative media have long complained of a perpetual outrage machine that says anything to see Democrats suffer at the polls. But today, they should take a careful look at the way the Occupy movement is helping to pipe the law-and-order message of the conservative counter-establishment back into the heart of the mainstream GOP.

Rather than the triumph of the lunatic fringe or a regression to some paranoid mean, the move marks a return of a core issue for the modern Republican Party. Republicans are justified in expecting electoral success when Americans worry about the government's ability (and willingness) to prevent, control, and punish social unrest.

Amid a growing chorus of conservative criticism, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg chose on November 15th to demonstrate that ability. At one o'clock in the morning, the NYPD told the Occupiers at Zuccotti Park to immediately remove all tents, sleeping bags, and belongings from the campsite -- that is, to turn Zuccotti from a campsite back into a park. "Many protesters," Bloomberg explained in the press conference that followed, "peacefully complied and left." With sanitation crews in tow, police "assisted in removing any remaining tents and sleeping bags," arresting dozens in the process. Urging his audience to "make no mistake -- the final decision was mine," Bloomberg justified the crackdown explicitly in terms of law and order: "We must never be afraid to insist on compliance with our laws," he said. "The First Amendment gives every New Yorker the right to speak out -- but it does not give anyone the right to sleep in a park or otherwise take it over to the exclusion of others -- nor does it permit anyone in our society to live outside the law."

Bloomberg recognized that local pressure was reaching a tipping point, from business and government to popular sentiment. But his abrupt response perhaps also reflects the uncomfortable national exposure trained on him by the conservative media. Bloomberg's response to Zuccotti -- or lack thereof -- had become the ongoing news hook for right-of-center stories and editorials lambasting failed government as hallmark of the Obama era. The mayor's inaction swiftly sped the anti-Occupy meme up the ladder of the conservative media. In the predawn hours of November 1st, Andrew Breitbart became the first to bring grassroots conservative disgust over reports of violence at Occupy camps before the big conservative media. "Rapes, Gropes, and Assaults, Oh My," read the headline of his post. "Mayor Bloomberg, Shut Down Zuccotti Park!" Accompanied by the first of several videos obtained from an activist conducting dismaying interviews on location, Breitbart demanded that Bloomberg stop "allowing New York's inmates to run the asylum" -- a "bad example that is being repeated across the country, with dozens of known victims."

On November 3rd, the New York Post followed suit, running its own editorial announcing it was "Time to throw the bums out:"

If they choose not to leave -- which they probably won't -- then Bloomberg needs to instruct the NYPD to clean the mess up. Today wouldn't be a day too soon.

Only two days later, the editors of National Review put the stamp of the conservative establishment's approval on the ultimatum: "Mr. Mayor, Tear Down Those Tents." And if Bloomberg himself wouldn't do it, well, "[i]t matters not who makes the first move, so long as the last move is the striking of the tents along Trotsky Alley."

Notably, the blame for the mess at Zuccotti broadened the closer the story got to the center of Republican power -- and in only a matter of days. Breitbart took the relatively narrow approach of using direct, unmediated video interviews with dismayed Occupiers themselves to advocate an end to Bloomberg's lenience, which functioned, he argued, as a model of governmental negligence that "set the stage" for "patterns" of "chaos and crime" across America.

Expanding the critique, the New York Post opined that "[w]hat began as a credible protest against bank bailouts, crony capitalism and the like has, in large measure, been hijacked by crazies and criminals." Bloomberg needed to stand "firm in the face of the firestorm that surely will ignite" when the "party" was finally "over" -- a firestorm, to be sure, of proportions as national as the new issue that Occupy had unleashed: not the corrupt relationship between big finance and big government, but the questionable relationship between the perpetrators of public disorder and the out-of-towners -- "radicals" and "manipulators in the labor unions seeking to capitalize on the 'occupation.'"

By the time National Review had thought things through -- again, in less than a week -- Bloomberg's tolerance was seen as a response to America's "community organizer in chief."

Hoovervilles, the unfortunately named shantytowns that dotted the country during the Depression, were places of desperation. But the tent city (Obamaville?) that has sprung up in Zuccotti Park is something else altogether.

These tent-dwellers, the editorial argued, were remarkably well-fed and well-appointed. A risk-averse Bloomberg may have been the proximate cause of Zuccotti Park's decadence and depravity, the editors said -- but the root cause was now identified as Barack Obama's policies, both active and passive.

With lightning speed, the unfolding Occupy saga had succeeded in bringing together the two great sources of traditional politically-expressed conservative contempt. Americans on the right but outside the establishment tend toward a ruggedly individualistic critique of hipsters, hippies, and the like -- people they see as self-entitled, self-pitying layabouts who overindugle in forced idealism to distract themselves from just how good they have it. For more establishment conservatives, that cultural angle is eclipsed by a hatred of bad policies, badly conceived -- the fruit of leaders as enamored of utopian social change as the bureaucratic, technocratic expertise they believe can create it. With the Occupy movement, cast as the living embodiment of what Obama's rule has wrought, the two critiques became flip sides of the same coin.

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James Poulos is a columnist at The Daily Caller and a contributor at Ricochet. He is on Twitter at @jamespoulos.

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